ANKARA: Turkey said it has seized “objectionable cargo” from a Syrian passenger plane forced to land in Ankara, reportedly on suspicions that it was carrying weapons, as tensions run high between the neighbouring nations.
Turkey seized “objectionable cargo” aboard the plane which it intercepted en route from Moscow to Damascus on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said after Anatolia news agency quoted officials as saying they suspected the aircraft was carrying arms.
“There is illegal cargo on the plane that should have been reported” in line with civil aviation regulations, Davutoglu was quoted as saying by Anatolia.
“There are elements on board that can be considered objectionable,” he added, without elaborating.
Ankara scrambled two jets to force the Syrian plane to land in Ankara on suspicions that its cargo contained weapons and ammunition.
But the plane was allowed to leave Ankara at 2330 GMT, 9 hours after it was intercepted, with all of its 35 passengers on board, Anatolia said.
Seventeen of them were Russian nationals, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.
“According to information that still has to be verified, there are 17 Russian citizens, including children, on board the plane,” Interfax reported, citing an unnamed source in the Russian Foreign Ministry.
The Russian embassy in Ankara has already contacted the government, demanding an explanation on the circumstances of the forced landing, according to the same Interfax source.
But Davutoglu said “the incident would not affect Turkish-Russian relations at this point.” The confiscated cargo is believed to be missile parts, NTV news channel reported, while state-run TRT channel speculated it could be communications equipment headed for Damascus.
The Airbus A-320 was travelling from Moscow to Damascus when Turkey received information that its cargo defied rules of civil aviation, Davutoglu noted earlier.
Turkey will hold on to the cargo for further investigation, he added.
Following the forced landing, Ankara warned Turkish airline companies against using Syrian airspace to avoid a possible retaliation from Damascus, NTV said.
The warning briefly interrupted Turkish air traffic, with Turkish planes changing routes to avoid the Syrian skies.
A Turkish Airlines plane carrying more than 300 Turkish pilgrims from the northwestern city of Bursa had to land urgently in Adana city in the south, after the Syrian plane was grounded.
The Turkish plane resumed its journey on a different route to its destination in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, after a several-hour delay, NTV said.
Tensions between Turkey and Syria have been running high, with sporadic fire exchanges at the border since last Wednesday.
Last week, a Syrian shell hit a Turkish border town, killing five civilians, two women and three children.
The deadly incident triggered retaliation fire from Turkish artillery units at the border, which has been increasingly fortified by scores of anti-aircraft batteries and Howitzers since the shelling.
It also brought on a parliamentary mandate which is valid for one year and which allows the government to authorise cross-border operations in Syria, and to be used “if needed”.
The Turkish army warned earlier Wednesday of a stronger response if Syrian shells continued to land on Turkish soil.
“We have retaliated (for Syrian shelling) and if it continues, we'll respond more strongly,” the head of Turkey's armed forces, General Necdet Ozel, said in Akcakale, the border town hit last week.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also warned Damascus not to test Turkey’s patience and vowed Ankara would not tolerate such acts.
Ties between Ankara and Damascus, formerly good, have been dramatically strained since June, when a Turkish jet was brought down by Syrian fire, killing its two pilots on board.
Nato head Anders Fogh Rasmussen has warned against escalation along the frontier and said the alliance has “all necessary plans in place to protect and to defend Turkey if necessary.”The sabre-rattling added to growing fears of a wider regional fallout from the conflict ravaging Syria, in which activists say more than 32,000 people have died, mostly civilians.