Tensions rise as Turkey intercepts aircraft
October 12, 2012, 12:01 am TWN
DAMASCUS--Syria accused Turkey of hostility on Thursday after it intercepted a passenger jet en route from Moscow on suspicion it was carrying illegal cargo, in a move also infuriating top Damascus ally Russia.
As the tensions soared, rebels fighting forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad won more strategic territory in their bid to secure a "buffer zone" in a swathe of land abutting the Turkish border, an AFP reporter said.
U.N.-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi waded back into the Syrian fray, meanwhile, holding talks with officials in Saudi Arabia, which like Turkey has called for Assad to quit and supports the rebels.
Turkey scrambled two jets on Wednesday to force down the Syrian Air Airbus A-320 en route from Moscow after reportedly receiving intelligence it was carrying military cargo for the Assad regime.
Damascus said the interception was "hostile and reprehensible" and "another sign of the hostile policies of the Erdogan government, which harbors (rebels) and bombs Syrian territory," referring to Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
It furiously demanded Turkey return the cargo it had seized at Ankara airport.
Russia, a top Damascus ally and its biggest arms supplier, said Ankara had put the lives of passengers at risk by forcing it to land in the Turkish capital, and denied it was carrying arms or military equipment.
"We are concerned that this emergency situation put at risk the lives and safety of passengers, who included 17 Russian citizens," Russia's foreign ministry said.
"The Russian side continues to insist on an explanation of the reasons for such actions by the Turkish authorities."
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Ankara had seized "illegal cargo" from the plane, adding Turkey would hold on to the cargo for further investigation but declining to elaborate on the contents.
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 said, quoted by Anatolia. "There are elements on board that can be considered objectionable."
In the central province of Homs, the town of Qusayr and rebel districts in the city of Homs were shelled and bombed by warplanes, said the Britain-based Observatory.
The army has intensified operations against Homs and Qusayr, which have been besieged by troops for months, vowing to overrun them by the end of the week to free up forces for northern battle zones.
The Observatory said violence killed at least 69 people across Syria so far on Thursday — 32 soldiers, 19 civilians and 18 rebels — adding to its overall toll of more than 32,000 dead in the nearly 19-month conflict.