Iranian civilian plane concerned in near-miss with suspected American warplanes over Syria



The Mahan airlines encounter, if confirmed to be with US warplanes, could amplify tensions between Iran and the United States, which is pursuing a hard-nosed campaign of sanctions and other actions against Iran.

Beirut: An Iranian passenger plane on its way from Iran to Beirut swerved and dropped abruptly to avoid two fighter jets flying close by, injuring several passengers before landing in Beirut, Iranian and Lebanese television stations reported Thursday evening.

Videos broadcast by Iranian and pro-Iran Lebanese media, which said the footage was taken by passengers, showed one of the fighter jets flying alongside the passenger plane, operated by Mahan Air, a privately owned Iranian airline.

Passengers then screamed as sudden turbulence seized the plane. In the aftermath, one video showed a passenger with his face and head bloodied, as well as a man lying down, apparently unconscious, while someone tended to him. Oxygen masks dangled overhead.

The television stations initially described the fighter jets as Israeli, but Iranian state television, citing an interview with the plane’s pilot, said the jets were American. An Israeli official denied any involvement in the near-miss, which took place in Syrian airspace. There was no immediate comment from US military officials.

A person in Syria who was briefed by Iranian and Hezbollah officials said the warplanes had intercepted the passenger jet over Al-Tanf, the site of a small US military base in southern Syria. This person, who is close to the alliance between Iran, Hezbollah and Syria and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the fighter jets were believed to belong to the US-led international coalition that has been fighting the Islamic State in Syria.

The US base at Al-Tanf, which sits near Syria’s border with Jordan and Iraq, is strategically located to block Iran from controlling a land route through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon.

The US-led coalition still flies combat air patrols over northeastern Syria to support about 500 American troops who carry out missions with Syrian Kurdish allies on the ground to counter pockets of Islamic State fighters.

US fighter jets also fly daily patrols near the Al-Tanf base, in southern Syria, where 150 to 200 US troops train Syrian counter-Islamic State fighters known as Maghawir al Thawra.

In May 2017, U.S. warplanes attacked a pro-Syrian government convoy that ignored warnings and violated a restricted zone around the base. In recent months, the US-backed Syrian forces have skirmished with roving bands of suspected Islamic State fighters near the base.

Iran is already on edge after a series of mysterious explosions and violent attacks against its civilian and military infrastructure, including at a nuclear fuel enrichment complex in early July.

The Mahan airlines encounter, if confirmed to be with US warplanes, could amplify tensions between Iran and the United States, which is pursuing a hard-nosed campaign of sanctions and other actions against Iran.

Iranian officials have attributed some of the recent attacks to sabotage, though they have not said whether they suspect Israel or the United States.

Lebanese media said an elderly passenger had been taken to a hospital affiliated with Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militia and political party. Lebanese civil aviation authorities said the plane had been carrying 150 passengers, some of whom suffered minor injuries.

Vivian Yee and Farnaz Fassihi c.2020 The New York Times Company

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