An Iranian passenger plane flying over Syria went into a nose-dive after nearly colliding with two US fighter jets, Iran’s state news agency claimed today.
The official IRIB agency initially reported a single Israeli jet had flown near the plane but later quoted the pilot as saying there were two self-identified US jets.
The pilot of the civilian airliner contacted the jet pilots to warn them about keeping a safe distance and the jet pilots identified themselves as American, IRIB reported.
Video posted by the agency showed a single jet from the window of the plane and comments from a passenger who had blood on his face.
The Iranian plane, belonging to regime-owned Mahan Air, was heading from Tehran to Beirut and landed safely in Lebanon, an airport source told Reuters.
Israel and the United States have long accused blacklisted airliner Mahan Air of ferrying weapons for Iranian-linked guerrillas in Syria and elsewhere.
The near-miss today comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the US following the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in January.
One passenger in the IRIB report described how his head hit the roof of the plane during the nose-dive and video showed an elderly passenger sprawled on the floor.
All of the passengers came off the plane and only some had minor injuries, the head of the Beirut airport told Reuters.
Mahan Air has been under US sanctions since 2011 for allegedly providing support to Iran’s elite Quds Force, which backs Hezbollah and other terror groups overseas.
An Israeli military spokesman had no immediate comment and there was no immediate comment from the US military.
Mahan Air has been linked to alleged shipments of arms from Iran to Shiite groups in Syria, including Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.
Alleged Israeli airstrikes in Syria have been thought to target Mahan Air weapons shipments in the past, according to The Times of Israel.
In May the US government slapped sanctions on a Chinese company over its alleged business ties to the airliner.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted at the time: ‘China is one of the few countries that still welcomes Mahan Air, an airline used to ferry Iran’s arms and terrorists. Today’s designation of a China-based company exacts consequences for that decision.
‘Anyone doing business with Mahan Air runs the risk of sanctions.’
At the time a Treasury Department state said the sanctioned firm, Shanghai Saint Logistics Limited, served as a general service agent to Mahan, providing various services on the airline’s behalf such as freight booking.
Steven Mnuchin said: ‘The Iranian regime is using Mahan Air to support an illegitimate and corrupt regime in Venezuela, just as it has done for the regime in Syria and for terrorist proxy groups throughout the Middle East.’
In April Mr Pompeo claimed ‘multiple aircraft’ belonging to Mahan Air had transferred ‘unknown support’ to the Venezuelan government, and called for a halt to the flights and for other countries to bar overflights by Mahan Air.
The Associated Press reported that Mahan Air was delivering key chemical components used for producing gasoline to help revive an ageing refinery in the Latin American country, which is in the grip of a severe economic crisis.
Both Iran and socialist Venezuela are under heavy US sanctions, and have had close relations for the last two decades.
The incident today comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the US following the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in January.
Iran executed Mahmoud Mousavi Majd, a translator accused of being a US and Israeli spy who helped the US kill Soleimani in a drone strike, on Monday, according to Iran’s judiciary.
Majd had been found guilty of receiving large amounts of money from the CIA and Mossad to supply information on the Quds force, which Soleimani headed, including the whereabouts of its commander.
However, Majd was not directly involved in the killing of Soleimani at Baghdad airport on January 3, having been arrested two years ago.
It comes a week after defence worker Reza Asgari was put to death after being accused of selling secret information about Iran’s missile program to the US.
Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike moments after he arrived in Iraq amid fears he was about to orchestrate attacks on the US embassy.
The move brought Iran and the US to the brink of war, and in the end Tehran retaliated by firing a volley of ballistic missiles at US troops stationed in Iraq.
While the attack on the western Iraqi base of Ain Al-Asad left no US soldiers dead, dozens of them suffered brain trauma.
President Donald Trump opted against responding militarily.
Amid sky-high tensions, Iran accidentally shot down a passenger jet while mistaking it for an American warplane, killing 176 people – mostly Iranians.
Majd had migrated to Syria in the 1970s with his family and worked as an English and Arabic language translator at a company, Iran’s judiciary website claimed.
When war broke out, he chose to stay in the country while his family left.
‘His knowledge of Arabic and familiarity with Syria’s geography made him close to Iranian military advisers and he took responsibilities in groups stationed from Idlib to Latakia,’ the site added.
Majd was not a member of the Revolutionary Guards ‘but infiltrated many sensitive areas under the cover of being a translator’.
He was found to have been paid ‘American dollars to reveal information on adviser convoys, military equipment and communication systems, commanders and their movements, important geographical areas, codes and passwords’ until he came under scrutiny and his access was downgraded.
He was arrested in October 2018, Mizan Online said.
Iran said last week it had executed another man convicted of spying for the CIA by selling information about Iran’s missile programme.
Reza Asgari had worked at the defence ministry’s aerospace division for years but retired four years ago, after which he sold ‘information he had regarding our missiles’ to the CIA in exchange for large sums of money.
Iran in February handed down a similar sentence for Amir Rahimpour, another man convicted of spying for the US and conspiring to sell information on Iran’s nuclear programme.
Tehran announced in December it had arrested eight people ‘linked to the CIA’ and involved in nationwide street protests that erupted the previous month over a surprise petrol price hike.
It also said in July 2019 that it had dismantled a CIA spy ring, arrested 17 suspects between March 2018 and March 2019 and sentenced some of them to death.
Trump at the time dismissed the claim as ‘totally false’.