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 President Bashar al-Assad won more territory as they bid to secure a "buffer zone" in a swathe of land abutting the Turkish border, an AFP reporter said.
UN-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.
Ankara scrambled two jets on Wednesday evening to force down the Syrian Air Airbus A-320, Turkish officials said, after receiving intelligence its cargo did not comply with civil aviation rules.
The aircraft with 35 passengers on board was grounded for nine hours before it was finally allowed to resume its journey to Damascus, as Turkey confiscated its unspecified "objectionable" cargo.
Damascus said the interception was "hostile and reprehensible" and "another sign of the hostile policies of the Erdogan government, which harbours (rebels) and bombs Syrian territory," referring to Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
It furiously demanded Turkey return the cargo it had seized at Ankara's Esenboga Airport.
"Turkish military aircraft... forced the plane to land without giving prior warning. The military aircraft were so close that there could have been an accident," said Syrian Air director Aida Abdel Latif.
Another airline official told AFP "armed and masked commandos stormed the plane and treated crew members roughly".
Russia, a top Damascus ally and its biggest arms supplier, said Ankara had put the passengers' lives at risk, and denied it was carrying weapons or military equipment.
"We are concerned that this emergency situation put at risk the lives and safety of passengers, who included 17 Russian citizens," said Russia's foreign ministry.
Ankara refuted the criticism, saying it took all necessary measures to ensure the passengers' safety.
"There is no basis for the concerns that the safety of the passengers and the plane might have been compromised," said its foreign ministry. "After the landing, all measures were taken to ensure the safety of all passengers."
Tensions have been running high between Ankara and Damascus since the eruption of the conflict in March 2011 and were inflamed after a series of shell strikes from Syria on Turkish soil, including one attack that killed five civilians last week.
Rebels seek buffer zone
Rebels are seeking to secure a buffer zone in the northwestern province of Idlib, and this week won control of the strategic town of Maaret al-Numan on the highway linking Damascus to second city Aleppo.
An AFP correspondent in the town said the insurgents had completely cut off the highway on Thursday, choking the flow of troops to battlefields in the north.
Fierce fighting raged on the periphery of Maaret al-Numan, where rebels have surrounded the key military bases of Wadi Daif and Hamdiyeh used by troops to bombard the town.
The regime also launched air raids on positions on the eastern outskirts of the town, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
"The planes fiercely bombed the areas where fighting was taking place to try to push back the rebels. They bomb and then go back to Hama military airport to resupply," its director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Firaz Abdel Hadi, a rebel spokesman, said almost 300 people had been killed in three days in Maaret al-Numan.
Other sources said regime forces executed at least 65 prisoners before retreating, including one survivor who said guards had opened fire on 80 inmates before fleeing.
The floor of two cellars which held soldiers suspected of trying to defect or supporting the rebellion, were covered in blood and stained clothing, AFP witnessed.
The Observatory said 20 of the 65 prisoners held at the facility -- a cultural centre -- had been executed.
The regime has also intensified its bombardment of the central city of Homs and nearby town of Qusayr, which it has vowed to overrun by the end of the week to free up forces for northern battle zones.
The Observatory said many lives were lost in Idlib province on Thursday, but that the ferocity of the clashes meant activists were unable to report on them.
Its updated nationwide toll for the day was at least 74 deaths -- 32 soldiers, 22 civilians and 20 rebels -- adding to its overall tally of more than 32,000 killed in the nearly 19-month conflict.
A Saudi official said peace envoy Brahimi would hold talks with the Saudi deputy foreign minister, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, the king's son who is in charge of the Syrian issue.
The veteran troubleshooter has previously held out little prospect for a negotiated end to a conflict both sides seem determined to decide on the battlefield.