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Panic aboard Iran passenger plane flying over Syria as two US jets fly nearby

US military terms Thursday's incident a 'standard visual inspection'; Iran television outlet calls it 'provocative'

July 24, 2020
The News/Illustration

TEHRAN: Two American jets flew dangerously close to an Iranian passenger plane that was flying over war-torn Syria and forced the pilot to take emergency action. 

The Iranian authorities said Friday that the incident sparked panic on board. 

The US military said Thursday's incident that an "F-15 on a routine air mission... conducted a standard visual inspection of a Mahan Air passenger airliner at a safe distance of approximately 1,000 metres (yards)".

US Central Command (CENTCOM) issued a statement after Iranian state television aired amateur footage of passengers on board screaming as the Mahan Air jetliner appeared to change course suddenly.

Another video apparently shot on a phone appeared to show at least two fighter jets flying beside the plane.

In an initial report accompanying the footage, the state broadcaster said the military aircraft were believed to be Israeli.

"After this dangerous action by the Israeli fighter, the pilot of the commercial plane quickly reduced the altitude of the flight to avoid colliding with the Israeli fighter, injuring several passengers on board," it said.

Iran's official IRNA news agency said the Mahan Air pilot made contact on the radio with two US fighter planes, and that the aircraft later landed safely in the Lebanese capital.

CENTCOM, which covers the whole of the wider Middle East, insisted it was a "professional intercept... conducted in accordance with international standards".

"Once the F-15 pilot identified the aircraft as a Mahan Air passenger plane, the F-15 safely opened distance from the aircraft," it said.

Iranian television called the incident "provocative and dangerous."

Foreign ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi said Iran had been in touch with both the United Nations and the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which has handled US interests in Iran since relations were severed in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution of 1979.

"If anything happens to the aircraft on its return flight, Iran will hold the United States responsible," Mousavi told IRNA.

Syrian state media said that "planes believed to belong to the US-led coalition intercepted" the Iranian airliner over the Al-Tanf district on the border with Jordan and Iraq, forcing the captain to make "a sharp drop".