Turkey diverting civilian planes to avoid Syrian airspace
ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNN) — In a sign of escalating tensions, Turkey diverted its civilian planes Friday to avoid using Syrian airspace. The two neighbors have been engaged in a diplomatic tussle since Turkish civilians died in cross-border shelling last week.
Turkey imposed the new route for Jeddah-bound planes because it considers Syrian airspace unsafe, according to TRT, the Turkish national public broadcaster.
The route mostly affects pilgrims going to Saudi Arabia. Planes will use airspace belonging to Jordan and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, TRT said.
Before the changes, Turkish civilian planes flew to Jeddah over Aleppo and Hatay Kamısli.
Turkish civilian planes leaving from Europe will use Egyptian airspace to go to Jeddah, TRT said.
The move comes after Turkey used F-16 warplanes to force a Syrian airliner to land at Ankara’s airport for a search Wednesday. A week before the forced landing, Syrian forces killed Turkish civilians in cross-border shelling.
Once the airliner landed, Turkey confiscated “items … traveling from Russia’s agency that exports weapons munitions and military supplies to Syria’s defense ministry,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Thursday.
The Syrian Information Ministry and Russian officials rejected Turkey’s claim. Turkish officials have not specified the exact contents of the plane.
Syria’s Foreign and Expatriates Ministry said Friday that there were no weapons or prohibited goods aboard the plane, according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.
The Turkish government’s action was a “flagrant violation” on international law, and the ministry wants Turkey to return the plane’s content intact, SANA said.
“The Ministry concluded that despite the condemned hostile behavior of the Turkish government, this will not affect our commitment to the friendship relations between the Syrian and Turkish peoples which are greater and much more important than any government,” SANA reported.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also denied that the plane carried weapons, only radar components that were consistent with international law. Russia has “no secrets,” he told state broadcaster Russia Today regarding the incident.
Turkey has intercepted Iranian shipments of arms headed to Syria through Turkish territory and airspace over the past year. In those cases, the government remained similarly silent about the nature of those shipments, perhaps to avoid embarrassing Iran, a neighbor and major Turkish trading partner.
Once-strong relations between Turkey and Syria have grown tense over the past year after the Syrian government began a bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters. Ankara backs the anti-government rebels and has called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
More recently, the two neighbors exchanged artillery fire following the death of five civilians killed by a Syrian shell that fell into a Turkish border village.
Envoy Brahimi talks with King Abdullah
Also Friday, Lakhdar Brahimi, envoy to Syria for both the United Nations and the Arab League, talked with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in Jedda Friday.
They discussed the crisis in Syria, according to an official Saudi release, and agreed the fighting must end.
Brahimi “stressed his belief that this deplorable situation would not be resolved through military means, but rather through a political process that would meet the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people,” the release said.
On the ground
Regime forces raided neighborhoods in Damascus and the city’s suburbs early Friday, according to the Local Coordination Committees for Syria, a network of opposition activists.
At least 113 people were killed across Syria on Friday, including 40 in Aleppo, according to the Local Coordination Committees for Syria, a network of opposition activists.
Opposition activist Tariq Abdul Haqq told CNN that rebels in northern Syria took 256 prisoners after a several-hour-long battle with government troops.
“I counted them one by one, soldiers and officers all inside a big abandoned building used by rebels as prison,” he said, adding that the rebel offensive also secured heavy weapons and ammunition from government troop positions.
He said roughly 300 rebels on Friday seized three villages in the suburbs of the northwestern Syrian city of Jisr Alshugour, near the Turkish border.
CNN cannot confirm that account, or reports of violence or casualty counts in Syria because the government has restricted access to international journalists.
CNN’s Hamdi Alkhshali and Gul Tuysuz contributed to this report.