Turkish jets on Wednesday forced a Syrian passenger plane to land at an airport in Ankara on suspicions that it was carrying weapons and officials seized military communication equipment and parts that could be used in missiles.
A Syrian Air Airbus A320 en route from Moscow was intercepted by F16 jets as it entered Turkish airspace and escorted to the capital's Esenboğa Airport. The station said authorities grounded the plane on suspicion that it was carrying heavy weapons.
As a result of the inspections, Turkey found military communication equipments and seized parts that could be used in missiles. The plane was then sent on to Damascus with 37 passengers and crew.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said in an interview with a Turkish network late on Wednesday that intelligence had suggested that the Syrian plane was carrying “non-civilian cargo” and “banned material.”
He said the plane was forced to land because of information that it may have been carrying "certain equipment in breach of civil aviation rules."
The plane and its passengers were allowed to continue after parts of the cargo were seized. Officials gave no details of what was confiscated, saying investigations were underway, but some Turkish newspapers said the cargo included non-lethal supplies such as radio equipment.
The move comes amid heightened tensions between Turkey and Syria, which have been exchanging artillery fire across their volatile border in the past week.
Davutoğlu said Turkey was within its rights under international law to investigate civilian planes suspected to be carrying military materials.
The Turkish foreign minister noted that whatever the inspectors found in the plane, Turkey would act in line with international law and declined to reveal the source of the intelligence obtained by Turkey.
The head of Turkey's civil aviation agency, Bilal Ekşi, said there were 37 passengers and crew members on board the plane. According to Moscow's Vnukovo airport, flight RB442 left for Damascus at 3:26 p.m. Moscow time (11:26 GMT). It is not yet certain whether this was the plane that was intercepted.
Russia, from where the Syrian plane took off, is one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's closest remaining allies and has blocked tougher UN resolutions against Damascus.
"Once a week a Syrian Air airplane flies from Moscow bound for Damascus," Russian news agency Interfax reported Vnukovo Airport spokeswoman Yelena Krylova as saying. "The plane took off normally. There were no incidents."
Interfax cited Krylova as saying 25 people were on board and that it was a charter plane. It was supposed to depart at 3:06 p.m. Moscow time, but left 20 minutes late.
Davutoğlu said the passengers were treated "hospitably" and given meals while the plane's cargo was inspected.
Officials in the Syrian Ministry of Information and Foreign Ministry could not immediately be reached for comment.
Earlier on the day, Turkish authorities declared Syrian airspace to be unsafe and were preventing Turkish aircraft from flying over the war-torn country, Turkey's Foreign Ministry said.
One Turkish plane that had already taken off for Saudi Arabia made a detour and landed at the Adana airport in southern Turkey.
Explaining the move to block Turkish flights over Syria, Davutoğlu said Syrian airspace has become increasingly unsafe with unabated clashes on the ground. However, some observers speculated that Turkey made the decision to avoid any similar reprisal from the Syrian side against Turkish planes.
‘No weapons transfers in Turkish airspace for regime that massacres civilians'
When asked if the Syrian Air plane was carrying arms, Davutoğlu declined to comment and said the material was banned from transport in civilian cargo.
"We are determined to control weapons transfers to a regime that carries out such brutal massacres against civilians. It is unacceptable that such a transfer is made using our airspace," Davutoğlu added.
He said Turkey would continue to investigate suspicious Syrian civilian aircraft using its airspace.
Davutoğlu also dismissed claims suggesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin delayed his upcoming visit to Turkey due to deepening divisions between Turkey and Russia over the festering Syrian conflict. He said he does not think the grounded Syrian plane will in any way harm Turkish-Russian relations. He said Putin's schedule was already a tentative one and officials have fixed his date for November.
Earlier Wednesday, Turkey's military chief vowed to respond with more force to any further shelling from Syria, keeping up the pressure on its southern neighbor a day after NATO said it stood ready to defend Turkey.
Gen. Necdet Özel was inspecting troops who have been put on alert along the 910-kilometer border with Syria after a week of cross-border artillery and mortar exchanges escalated tensions between the neighbors, sparking fears of a wider regional conflict.
Turkey has reinforced its border with artillery weapons and also deployed more fighter jets to an air base close to the border since shelling from Syria killed five Turkish civilians last week.