Iranian authorities said Friday two U.S. fighter jets flew dangerously close to an Iranian passenger plane over war-torn Syria, forcing the pilot to take emergency action and sparking panic on board. However, the U.S. military disputed Iran's account of the incident.
U.S. Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, told CBS News that a U.S. F-15 fighter jet "conducted a standard visual inspection of a Mahan Air passenger airliner at a safe distance of approximately 1,000 meters from the airliner" Thursday night.
CENTCOM issued the statement after Iranian state television aired amateur footage of passengers on board screaming as the Mahan Air jetliner appeared to change course suddenly. Another video apparently shot on a phone appeared to show at least two fighter jets flying beside the plane.
In an initial report accompanying the footage, the state broadcaster said the military aircraft were believed to be Israeli.
"After this dangerous action by the Israeli fighter, the pilot of the commercial plane quickly reduced the altitude of the flight to avoid colliding with the Israeli fighter, injuring several passengers on board," it said.
Aircraft at that altitude are to maintain a distance of at least 600 meters (2,000 feet) to ensure they don't hit each other, though planes traveling that close together can encounter wake turbulence.
Data from the flight recorded by website FlightRadar24.com showed the airliner climbed from 34,000 feet to 34,600 feet in under two minutes around the time of the incident, then dropped back down to 34,000 feet within a minute after.
The aircraft landed soon after this but three passengers sustained injuries and were taken to hospital, the Iranian TV report said, citing what it described as informed but unnamed sources at the Beirut airport. The report also said some of the cabin crew were injured but did not elaborate.
CENTCOM, which covers the whole of the wider Middle East, insisted it was a "professional intercept... conducted in accordance with international standards".
"Once the F-15 pilot identified the aircraft as a Mahan Air passenger plane, the F-15 safely opened distance from the aircraft," it said.
Iranian television called the incident "provocative and dangerous," and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, "These outlaws must be stopped before disaster."
"U.S. illegally occupies territory of another State and then harasses a scheduled civil airliner-endangering innocent civilian passengers-ostensibly to protect its occupation forces," he tweeted. "Audacity to compound lawlessness upon lawlessness."
Foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said Iran had been in touch with both the United Nations and the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which has handled U.S. interests in Iran since relations were severed in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution of 1979.
"If anything happens to the aircraft on its return flight, Iran will hold the United States responsible," Mousavi told IRNA.
Syrian state media said that "planes believed to belong to the U.S.-led coalition intercepted" the Iranian airliner over the Al-Tanf district on the border with Jordan and Iraq, forcing the captain to make "a sharp drop".