Turkish F-16 jets forced a passenger plane traveling from Moscow to Damascus to land after intelligence reports said it was carrying cargo banned by civil aviation rules, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.
The plane was carrying about 30 passengers and some cargo that it didn't report, Davutoglu said in an interview broadcast by TGRT television from Athens, without specifying what the cargo was. Authorities later discovered 12-13 "giant" crates of equipment destined for the Syrian armed forces including communications gear and jammers, the Istanbul-based Hurriyet newspaper said.
"We are determined to control the flow of weapons to the regime in Syria, which is mercilessly massacring its people," Davutoglu said on TGRT. "It is unacceptable to use Turkish airspace for such shipments."
The incident comes after six days of artillery exchanges across the common border between Turkey and Syria triggered by the deaths of five Turkish civilians after a mortar shell landed in a frontier village on Oct. 3. The following day, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan received authorization from parliament to send troops into Syria if considered necessary.
The plane, an Airbus A320 operated by Syrian Airlines was escorted to Ankara airport by the Turkish warplanes, Hurriyet reported, without saying how it got the information.
Russia's government said about half the passengers were its citizens. Turkish authorities had been searching the plane for weapons for several hours without finding anything, a Russian official said on condition of anonymity.
The plane, Flight SRY442, was being monitored before it entered Turkish airspace and had been intercepted based on extraordinary intelligence, Davutoglu said. Turkey also suspended all flights by its aircraft to Syria, state-run TRT television reported citing civil aviation authorities.
"Turkey does not want war but there is a war in Syria," Davutoglu said on TGRT.
Turkey will apply international law should it find any weapons on the plane, and scrutiny of Syrian civil flights will continue, Davutoglu said. The incident is not expected to affect Turkish relations with Russia, he said.
About 100,000 Syrian refugees are being hosted by Turkey, including many members of the rebel Free Syrian Army that's been fighting forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The fighting has claimed about 30,000 lives in 19 months, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The chief of staff of Turkey's armed forces, General Necdet Ozel, said Turkey will retaliate more harshly should Syrian shells continue to land on Turkish soil. He made the comments as he inspected troops in Akcakale, the village where the Turkish civilians were killed on Oct. 3, CNN-Turk television said.
At least 14 Syrian soldiers have died in Turkish retaliatory fire into the country in the past six days, Al Arabiya television reported today.
Syria is not seeking a military confrontation with Turkey and is investigating the shelling that caused the five deaths, Jihad Makdissi, Syria's Foreign Ministry spokesman, said today in a phone interview.
"Syria is in a self-defensive mode and we will act accordingly," he said. "What happened was an incident not an attack. This incident is because of the presence of armed groups in that area."
Russian President Vladimir Putin was due to visit Turkey on Oct. 14. He postponed the trip to November due to a busy schedule, the Turkish prime minister's office said today.