* Syria slams grounding as "air piracy"
* Russian arms export agency says not involved
* Islamists say they planted bombs in Damascus security base
* Hezbollah denies sending fighters to aid Assad
By Nick Tattersall
ISTANBUL, Oct 11 Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip
Erdogan said on Thursday a Syrian passenger plane forced to land
in Ankara was carrying Russian-made munitions destined for
Syria's armed forces, ratcheting up tension with his country's
Damascus said the plane had been carrying legitimate cargo
and described Turkey's actions as an act of "air piracy", while
Moscow accused Ankara of endangering the lives of Russian
passengers when it intercepted the jet late on Wednesday.
The grounding of the plane was another sign of Ankara's
growing assertiveness towards the crisis in Syria. Turkey's
chief of staff warned on Wednesday the military would use
greater force if Syrian shells continued to land in Turkey.
"This was munitions from the Russian equivalent of our
Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation being sent to the
Syrian Defence Ministry," Erdogan told a news conference.
A spokeswoman for Moscow's Vnukovo airport told state news
agency Itar-Tass everything put on the plane had cleared customs
and security checks and no prohibited items were on board.
Asked about Erdogan's statement, the Russian Foreign
Ministry referred to her remarks and declined further comment.
Russia's arms export agency said it had no cargo on the
flight, and the Interfax news agency quoted a Russian diplomat
as saying the cargo seized by Turkey was not of Russian origin.
Syrian Arab Airlines chief Ghaida Abdulatif said in Damascus
the plane had been carrying civilian electrical equipment.
Turkey has become one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's
harshest critics during a 19-month-old uprising that has killed
some 30,000 people, providing sanctuary for rebel officers and
pushing for a foreign-protected safe zone inside Syria.
Russia has stood behind Assad and an arms industry source
said Moscow had not stopped its weapons exports to Damascus.
Military jets escorted the Airbus A-320, carrying around 30
passengers, into Ankara airport after Turkey received an
intelligence tip-off. The Turkish foreign ministry said the
plane had been given a chance to turn back towards Russia while
still over the Black Sea, but the pilot chose not to do so.
"This hostile and deplorable Turkish act is an additional
indication of the hostile policy of Erdogan's government,"
Syria's foreign ministry said in a statement, accusing Ankara of
"harbouring terrorists" and allowing them to infiltrate Syria.
The Syrian conflict threatens to suck in neighbouring states
and exposes the deep Sunni-Shi'ite rift in the Middle East.
Two Sunni Islamist rebel groups said late on Thursday they
had detonated bombs in a state security compound in central
Damascus. Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah group - which, like
Syria's rulers, is allied with Shi'ite Iran - meanwhile denied
sending fighters to aid Assad.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had been expected to visit
Turkey at the start of next week but Turkish officials said
hours before the plane was grounded that Russia had requested
the visit be postponed, citing his heavy work schedule.
Turkey said it would stop more Syrian civilian aircraft
using its airspace if necessary and instructed Turkish passenger
planes to avoid Syrian airspace, saying it was no longer safe.
"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,"
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.
Turkey has boosted its troop presence along the 900-km
(560-mile) border and returned fire in response to shelling from
northern Syria, where Assad's forces have been battling rebels.
Chief of Staff General Necdet Ozel said on Wednesday his
troops would respond "with greater force" if Syrian shelling
continued and parliament last week authorised the deployment of
troops outside Turkish territory.
Such approval has in the past been used for strikes against
Kurdish militant bases in northern Iraq. In 2008 Turkey sent
10,000 troops backed by air power over the border.
Some 25 fighter planes were sent to a military base in the
southern city of Diyarbakir, around 100 km from the Syrian
border, on Monday, the Dogan news agency said.
Syrian refugees fleeing across a river into Turkey spoke of
chaos as Syrian government forces battled rebels for control of
the area around their home town of Azmarin on Thursday.
Loudspeakers in Azmarin, audible from Hacipasa on the
Turkish side, called on rebel fighters to give up.
"Give up your weapons. Come and surrender. We are coming
with tanks and planes," they said between bursts of mortar fire.
RISKS OF DEEPER INVOLVEMENT
Turkey has made clear that beyond like-for-like retaliation
it has no appetite for unilateral intervention in Syria. Such a
move would be fraught with risks.
Turkey relies on Russia, which has blocked tougher U.N.
resolutions against Damascus, both for energy needs and to help
realise its ambitions to be a hub for energy supplies to Europe.
Many Turks see Russia as harbouring sympathy towards the
militant Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has stepped up
violence in southeast Turkey in recent months. Turkish officials
believe Syria and Iran have also been backing the group.
"We get 80 percent of our natural gas from Iran and Russia.
Already the PKK card is being used by Iran against Turkey ... so
the risks for Turkey of being involved in even a limited
operation are huge," Ulgen said.
The establishment of foreign-protected safe zones in Syria
would be hazardous, with the exit strategy for foreign forces
dependent on the Syrian opposition's ability to topple Assad.
The opposition is deeply divided. Organisers of a Qatar
conference aimed at uniting it said on Thursday it had been
postponed until they can agree on fair representation for
The Syrian rebels are outgunned by the government but can
still strike at will, while Assad has assumed personal command
of his forces, convinced he can prevail militarily.
"The earlier Bashar goes, the easier the transition in Syria
will be," French President Francois Hollande said on Thursday.
"The longer it lasts, the greater the risk of civil war,
chaos and partition. I refuse to accept that."
Rebels attacked a Syrian army base near the main northern
highway on Thursday to try to consolidate their control over the
supply line to Aleppo, days after capturing a strategic town in
the area, opposition activists said.
They used at least one tank seized from the army, as well as
rocket-propelled grenades and mortar bombs, to hit the Wadi
al-Deif base, three km east of the town of Maarat al-Nuaman,
which they captured this week, they said.