DUBAI, July 24 (Reuters) – Iran said on Friday a U.S. fighter jet “harassed” an Iranian civilian airliner in an act of terrorism which injured and panicked passengers, dismissing a U.S. account that the jet was merely conducting a visual inspection.
State TV video footage of the inside of the Mahan Air airliner showed a passenger lying immobile of the floor and another with a wounded nose and forehead, presenting his bloodied face mask to the camera.
Several passengers, some seen screaming and shouting, were injured in the flight manoeuvre over Syria as the airliner rapidly changed altitude to avoid collision, according to Iranian media, but the U.S. military said its F-15 had kept at a safe distance.
The U.S. military’s Central Command, which oversees American troops in the region, said the F-15 was conducting a visual inspection of the Iranian airliner when it passed near the Tanf garrison in Syria, home to U.S. forces.
Captain Bill Urban, the senior Central Command spokesman, said the F-15 “conducted a standard visual inspection of a Mahan Air passenger airliner at a safe distance of about 1,000 metres (3,280 feet)” from the airliner.
“The visual inspection occurred to ensure the safety of coalition personnel at Tanf garrison,” Urban said. “Once the F-15 pilot identified the aircraft as a Mahan Air passenger plane, the F-15 safely opened distance from the aircraft.”
He added the intercept was carried out in accordance with international standards.
The pilot of the passenger plane contacted the jet pilots to warn them to keep a safe distance and they identified themselves as American, Iran‘s official IRIB news agency reported.
Iranian Transport Minister Mohammad Eslami was quoted by the semi-official ISNA news agency on Friday as saying Tehran had lodged a formal complaint with the International Civil Aviation Organization, describing Thursday’s incident as a “terrorist act, one of aggression”.
Laya Joneydi, vice president for legal affairs, was quoted as saying by Iranian media that the U.S. action was “harassment of a passenger plane” and a “clear violation of aviation security and freedom of civilian aircraft”.
“The explanations provided so far (by the U.S. military) are unjustified and unconvincing,” she was quoted as saying.
Iran‘s Foreign Ministry said the encounter may be linked to the upcoming U.S. presidential election, state media reported.
“The security of West Asia should not become a plaything in the U.S. election campaign,” ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said. He did not elaborate.
“Iran won’t leave any hostile move against its nation unanswered and shall respond decisively and appropriately to any irrational move in due time,” Mousavi said.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused the United States of endangering civilian passengers.
“These outlaws must be stopped before disaster,” he tweeted.
The Iranian plane was heading from Tehran to Beirut at the time.
Video footage showed oxygen masks fallen from the overhead roof panels. One jet can be seen through a seat window flying some distance away in a clear blue sky.
“I saw a black plane approaching us, and then we lost our balance,” one unidentified injured passenger told state TV.
“It was a jet. Almost so near our plane.”
One of the passengers was lying on the floor by the toilets and another passenger put a cushion under his head as cabin crew tended to others.
(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Nick Macfie)