US confirms intercept of Iranian passenger plane over Syria
Iranian media say the flight by Mahan Air, which is under US sanctions, was forced to abruptly lose altitude
An Iranian passenger jet pilot claimed he had to change altitude quickly on Thursday to avoid US fighter jets over Syria, the official Irib news outlet claimed.
The pilot of the Mahan Air passenger jet claimed there were two jets that identified themselves as American, the state-owned agency reported.
He said he contacted the jet pilots to warn them to keep a safe distance, Irib reported.
The US Central Command, which oversees US operations in the Middle East, said its aircraft conducted a "professional intercept" in accordance with international standards.
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 from the airliner this evening," Centcom spokesman Capt Bill Urban said.
He said the check was carried out "to ensure the safety of coalition personnel at Al Tanf garrison", a base near Syria's borders with Iraq and Jordan.
"Once the F-15 pilot identified the aircraft as a Mahan Air passenger plane, the F-15 safely opened distance from the aircraft."
Earlier reports from Iran had claimed the interception was made by two fighter jets from Israel.
Data from the flight recorded by website FlightRadar24.com showed the airliner climbed from 34,000 feet to 34,600 feet in under two minutes around the time of the incident, then dropped back down to 34,000 feet within a minute after.
Syrian television and the official Sana news agency, quoting civil aviation sources, said that "planes believed to belong to the US-led coalition intercepted a civilian Iranian airplane in Syrian airspace in the Tanaf region, which forced the captain to undertake a sharp drop that led to light injuries among passengers".
The plane, which had been en route from Tehran, continued on to Beirut as scheduled after the incident, the sources added.
All of the passengers left the plane, some with minor injuries, the head of the Beirut airport told Reuters.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said the incident was being investigated and legal and political action would be taken.
A message has been passed to the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, who represents US interests in Iran, that if any incident occurs with the aircraft on its return Tehran will hold the US responsible, Mr Mousavi said.
The head of Beirut airport said plane left the Lebanese capital to return to Tehran on Thursday evening.
Israel and the US have long accused Mahan Air of ferrying weapons for Iranian-linked militias in Syria and elsewhere. The privately owned airline is based in Tehran and flies across the Middle East.
In 2011, the US Treasury sanctioned the airline for allegedly “providing financial, material and technological support” to Iran's Quds Force, the overseas operations arm of the paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Treasury also alleged Mahan Air had carried weapons, goods and personnel for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Updated: July 25, 2020 02:37 PM