Turkey seized “objectionable cargo” aboard a Syrian passenger plane that was intercepted by Turkish fighter jets and forced to land in Ankara en route from Moscow to Damascus on Wednesday, NTV news channel reported.
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 news agency 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 Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet 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 35-passenger A-320 plane was escorted by Turkish F4 jets to Ankara’s Esenboga Airport for security checks on its cargo by Turkish officials.
“We asked a Syrian civilian plane to land,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Selcuk Unal told AP in an email. “We are investigating.”
Davutoglu, interviewed by Turkey’s state-run TRT television in Athens, said that the plane was forced to land because of information that it may be carrying “certain equipment in breach of civil aviation rules.”
The move comes amid heightened tensions between Turkey and Syria, which have been exchanging artillery fire across the volatile border in the past week.
Private NTV television said there were 35 passengers on board the plane.
Meanwhile, Turkish authorities declared the Syrian airspace to be unsafe and were stopping Turkish aircraft from flying over the civil-war torn country, the Foreign Ministry said.
TRT television said a Turkish plane that had already taken off for Saudi Arabia made a detour and landed at a Turkish airport.
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 Ozel was inspecting troops who have been put on alert along the 910-kilometer (566-mile) 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 the border with artillery guns and also deployed more fighter jets to an air base close to the border region since shelling from Syria killed five Turkish civilians last week.
“We responded and if (the shelling) continues, we will respond with more force,” the private Dogan news agency quoted Ozel as saying during a visit to the town of Akcakale.