July 24, 2020 / 11:30 AM / 20 days ago

Iran condemns U.S. jet fly-by of airliner, U.S. says it kept safe distance

DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran said on Friday a U.S. fighter jet “harassed” an Iranian civilian airliner in an act of terrorism that 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 on 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.

The U.S. military said its F-15 had kept at a safe distance.

Its Central Command, which oversees American troops in the region, said the fighter was conducting a visual inspection of the airliner as it passed near the Tanf garrison in Syria, home to U.S. forces.

The inspection was carried out in accordance with international standards “at a safe distance of about 1,000 metres (3,280 feet)... to ensure the safety of coalition personnel at Tanf garrison,” senior spokesman Captain Bill 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.”

The United States has long accused Mahan Air of ferrying weapons for Iranian-linked guerrillas in Syria and elsewhere and imposed sanctions on the airline since 2011.

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 Road Minister Mohammad Eslami was quoted by the semi-official ISNA news agency as saying Tehran had lodged a 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”.

“The explanations provided so far (by the U.S. military) are unjustified and unconvincing,” she said.

Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, condemned the incident in a statement as a “terrorist act ...that could have led to consequences of an unknown extent in the region”.

‘ELECTION PLAYTHING’?

Iran’s Foreign Ministry said the encounter might 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.

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.”

Reporting by Dubai newsroom additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Editing by Nick Macfie and John Stonestreet

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