US fighter jet sparks panic after flying near Iranian passenger plane over Syria

Passengers say plane was forced to dive to avoid collision

Passengers aboard Iranian flight over Syria scream in fear as jet approaches

A US F-15 fighter jet flew near an Iranian passenger plane over Syria late on Thursday, sparking a panic onboard the civilian aircraft and a plunge that left several injured.

Iran said it plans to raise the incident before the UN Security Council.

A video taken aboard the Mahan Air flight 1152 from Tehran to Beirut showed passengers screaming in terror and calling out prayers as oxygen masks hung from the cabin ceiling. The plane eventually landed without suffering any damage at Beirut’s international airport.

Some of the passengers appeared shaken up and bloodied. “The plane suddenly went up and down and my head hit the ceiling,” said one passenger aboard the plane in a video posted online, apparently by an Iranian state television reporter who happened to be on the flight.

The US confirmed that two F-15 fighter jets approached the Mahan Air flight to conduct a “standard” visual inspection at a “safe distance” of 1,000 metres.

“Once the F-15 pilot identified the aircraft as a Mahan Air passenger plane, the F-15 safely opened distance from the aircraft. The professional intercept was conducted in accordance with international standards,” Captain Bill Urban, a spokesperson for US Central Command, said in a statement.

However, passengers on the civilian aircraft said a warplane came as close as 100 to 200 metres. The state television reporter said in a video that the F-15 “came close to us and the pilot of the plane, to avoid a collision, rapidly descended”.

The Pentagon has yet to explain what kind of visual scrutiny a pilot flying a warplane near the speed of sound could provide of a moving civilian jet, or what the pilot might have done had they identified anything suspicious.

The incident comes as Washington and its allies face off against Iran during what could be the final months of the administration of the US president, Donald Trump, who has ramped up tensions with Tehran.

Civilians have been caught in the crossfire. In January, Iran shot down a Ukrainian civilian jet near Tehran, apparently mistaking it for a retaliatory US missile launch or fighter jet following a confrontation in Iraq with American forces over their assassination of Qassem Suleimani, a senior Iranian commander. All 176 passengers and crew onboard were killed.

There have been a number of close calls between fighter jets and civilian aircraft over Syrian airspace, including an incident in February in which a plane on a Tehran-Damascus flight was nearly struck by Syrian anti-aircraft fire following a suspected Israeli airstrike.

Mahan Air is sanctioned and under close scrutiny by the US for allegedly transporting fighters and military material to and from conflict zones in the Middle East, including Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. It has also been accused of moving goods between Iran, China and Venezuela in order to circumvent US sanctions.

Iranians recently criticised the state-owned airline for continuing flights to China even though most countries suspended them earlier this year to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, which epidemiologists say probably originated in the Chinese province of Wuhan.

The US and Iran have been in a state of conflict since a 1979 uprising overthrew Tehran’s pro-American monarch and established rule by Islamist radicals.

Iranians remain traumatised by the downing in 1988 of Iran Air flight 655, which was shot down by the US missile cruiser Vincennes, killing all 290 passengers and crew.

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