BEIRUT -- Turkish state media reported Thursday that a Syrian passenger plane intercepted and forced to land in Turkey was carrying military communications equipment.
The plane, en route from Moscow to Damascus, Syria, on Wednesday night, was searched for five hours at the airport in the Turkish capital of Ankara and officials found 10 sealed boxes addressed to the Syrian Defense Ministry, Turkish television TRT reported. After confiscating the boxes, the plane and its 37 passengers and crew were allowed to continue on to Damascus.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry said the plane’s cargo did not include any weapons or prohibited goods, Syrian state media reported. It added that all of the cargo had been registered on the flight manifest.
Syrian Arab Airlines director Ghaida Abdullatif told Syrian state media that Turkish authorities assaulted the plane’s crew members when they refused to sign a document saying that the plane made an emergency landing.
The incident comes amid increasing tension between the two countries as Turkey has traded mortar and artillery fire with Syria in recent days, a week after a Syrian shell killed five people across the border. Turkey’s top military commander warned Wednesday that his country would respond forcefully to any further shelling of its territory.
The ongoing conflict in Syria between forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and anti-government rebels threatens to draw in neighboring countries and turn into a regional conflict.
Turkey said it had intercepted the plane based on national and international rules and regulations.
"The cargo was not suitable for a civil plane under international rules and regulations,” said Transportation Minister Binali Yildirim, the official Anadolu news agency reported. "An air space must be utilized for peaceful purposes. Otherwise, we will use our rights stemming from national and international laws. We used the rights on Wednesday and will use them in the future whenever necessary.”
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin postponed a planned visit to Turkey on Oct. 14 and 15. Russia has been a staunch ally of Syria and has been accused of continuing to supply weapons to the Assad regime.
Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the postponement of Putin's visit was not related to the plane’s interception and would take place in the next few weeks, according to Anadolu.
But Russia had strong words for Turkey on Thursday and said the interception endangered Russian lives.
-- Times staff writer
Photo: Officials speak outside the cabin door of a Syrian passenger plane that was forced by Turkish jets to land in Ankara, Turkey, on Thursday. Credit: Burhan Ozbilici / Associated Press