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Turkey Keeps Eye on Iran Flights to Syria -Source

ANKARA, Nov 1 (Reuters) - Turkey has told Iran it could ask Iranian aircraft crossing its airspace to Syria to land at a Turkish airport for a search of its cargo, official sources said on Wednesday.

"We don't want to entertain any doubts...about support for any terrorist elements in the Middle East," one source said. "We're not imputing any responsibility (on Iran's part), but we simply don't want to have a time of tension."

Flights from Tehran to Syria are routed over Turkey to avoid flying over Iraq.

An Iranian passenger aircraft on a weekly flight from Tehran to Damascus was diverted to a Turkish military airfield in Diyarbakir on Tuesday. It was searched and allowed to continue its journey after half an hour.

"We told them beforehand that we were going to ask it to land. The flight came 24 hours late and at first they said 'no' and turned back," the source said. "Then they changed their mind and landed. We found nothing wrong and let them go."

Turkey's concern could be directed towards the Iranian- backed Hizbollah group which has stepped up operations in Lebanon, where Syria is the main power broker. Damascus could be seen as a conduit to Lebanon's tense southern border with Israel.

Hizbollah has urged confrontation with Israel in five weeks of clashes that have killed at least 157 people, most of them Arabs, and all but ended the Middle East peace process.

Israel has said it will hold Syria responsible for any attacks by Hizbollah, which captured three Israeli soldiers on the Lebanon-Israeli border last month.

President Ahmet Necdet Sezer accused Israel last week of using excessive force against Palestinians throwing stones and petrol bombs at Israeli troops.

But Muslim Turkey maintains close military and political links with Israel. Some Turkish media reports said Turkey had decided to search the flights at the behest of Israel.

"We have made Iran feel that there is always a chance of an inspection on these flights," the official source said, but would not comment on the reports of Israeli involvement.

Ankara has fraught relations with Tehran, suspecting it of backing militant islamist groups operating in Turkey as well as providing sanctuary for Kurdish separatists.

Countries have the right under international law to ask aircraft flying across their airspace to land for inspections.


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