Two U.S. Air Force F-15 combat jets reportedly flew in the vicinity of an Airbus A310 airliner belonging to Iran's Mahan Airlines over Syria today, but a U.S. official has said that the warplanes were conducting "legal, routine flights." This follows still murky reports that the F-15s harassed the Mahan Airlines flight, causing it to make an evasive maneuver and leading to a number of injuries among its passengers.
VOA was first to report that American military aircraft were flying in the same general airspace as Mahan Air Flight 1152 on July 23, 2020, as the A310 passed over a strategic forward garrison that American forces and their local Syrian partners operate near the city of At Tanf in Syria. This site is situated in the southeastern portion of the country near the Iraqi and Jordanian borders.
At the time of writing, the U.S. military has not offered a detailed explanation of exactly what happened in the skies over At Tanf. The state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) news agency had been the first to report the alleged dangerous maneuvering by the F-15s based on information from one of its journalists on Mahan Air Flight 1152, which was heading from Iran's capital Tehran to Beirut, Lebanon at the time of the incident.
Video footage reportedly from onboard the aircraft after the incident shows debris in the aisles and at least one passenger with blood running from their forehead. Others are seen wearing uninflated life jackets. Some emergency oxygen masks are seen deployed in the cabin, but no passengers appear to be wearing them.
Another clip taken from behind one airliner's windows shows an F-15 flying alongside the airliner at a considerable distance away and then peeling off.
Iranian quasi-state media, Syrian state media, and pro-Iranian Lebanese outlets quickly picked up the story, with many initially identifying the two F-15s as Israeli. There has been no official statement from the Israel Defense Forces, but Israeli media reports had said that the IDF had denied any involvement even before the confirmation that the U.S. aircraft were in the area at the time.
Online flight tracking software does show that Mahan Air Flight 1152 did make a relatively rapid descent of about 250 feet as it flew over western Iraq toward the airspace over At Tanf. However, Another Mahan Air airliner flying the same route from Tehran to Beirut made a nearly identical maneuver in the same general location on July 20 without there being any apparent incident.
The A310 landed safely Lebanon, though there were unconfirmed reports that at least four individuals had to be taken to the hospital after the plane touched down. A photograph reportedly of the plane on the tarmac Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport shows individuals being transferred to an ambulance.
After a normal amount of time on the ground in Beirut, the aircraft took back off and headed back toward Tehran along the same route. It passed back over At Tanf, without any further reported harassment.
Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles are forward deployed to Jordan and do routinely patrol the airspace around At Tanf, which has been the target of a number of attacks by forces aligned with the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad, including Iranian-backed militias and drones, in recent years. It's not necessarily unfounded that these combat jets would fly up to check out an Iranian airliner flying over the garrison.
The U.S. government has also sanctioned Mahan Airlines, which it says is a key instrument in Iran's support of proxy forces in Syria, as well as Lebanon and elsewhere. It has also been tied to Iranian efforts evade other sanctions. Other countries, including Israel and France, have also alleged that Mahan Air is actively involved in illicit and otherwise hostile activity on behalf of the Iranian government.
This incident also comes as the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump continues to pursue a policy of maximum pressure against Iran, which includes extensive sanctions and reported covert activities aimed at destabilizing the Iranian regime. In recent weeks there have been a series of mysterious incidents, including an explosion at a centrifuge production center within Iran's Natanz nuclear facility, as well as numerous fires, that have put Iranian forces on high alert. Reports have suggested that at least some of these separate incidents could be the work of foreign actors, namely Israel and possibly with the help of the United States.
Whatever may or may not have happened between the U.S. Air Force's F-15s and Mahan Airlines Flight 1152 over Syria, it seems almost certain it will further contribute to the already heated tensions between the two longtime foes.
We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.
U.S. Central Command has made it clear that U.S. Air Force F-15s did indeed intercept the airliner in question near At Tanf, but that the fighters stayed thousands of feet away from the Airbus during the intercept:
The below statement is attributable to Capt. Bill Urban, spokesman for U.S. Central Command:
A U.S. F-15 on a routine air mission in the vicinity of the CJTF-OIR At Tanf garrison in Syria conducted a standard visual inspection of a Mahan Air passenger airliner at a safe distance of approximately 1,000 meters from the airliner this evening. The visual inspection occurred to ensure the safety of coalition personnel at At Tanf garrison. 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.
Iranian authorities have now said they are investigating the incident.
"The incident is under investigation," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said, according to Iran's PressTV. "Due political and legal measures will be taken upon completion of the information at hand."
PressTV also reported that Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations Majid Takht Ravanchi also told U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that the regime in Tehran would hold the United States "responsible" if anything happened to the Air Mahan A310 as it returned to Iran. There is no indication of any further incidents involving the flight, which made the return trip last night.
You can find our continuing coverage of this incident in a new story here.
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