BEIRUT: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki Thursday said he would punish those behind an incident that saw a Middle East Airlines plane forced to double back midflight to collect the son of an Iraqi official.
In an apparent diplomatic gesture to prevent any deterioration of Lebanese-Iraqi ties, Maliki’s media adviser said the premier would expel and hold accountable anyone who proved to be responsible for the flight’s diversion, according to Iraqi Al-Sumaria News.
The move came hours after news surfaced that a passenger plane was forced to return to Beirut airport while in midair after Iraqi authorities refused to provide clearance for it to land in Baghdad without the son of an Iraqi official on board.
Two hours after the plane was forced to return to Beirut, MEA issued a statement saying an Airbus 320 scheduled to depart Beirut at 12:46 p.m. had been delayed six minutes after one of its passengers, Mahdi al-Amiri, failed to make the flight. Amiri, son of Iraqi Transport Minister Hadi al-Amiri, was not at Rafik Hariri International Airport at the required time, the statement said.
Twenty minutes after the plane entered Syria’s airspace, the Baghdad airport station manager called MEA operations to inform them that Iraqi authorities would not allow it to land unless Amiri was on board, the statement added.
MEA later retracted the statement, but it had already caused an uproar on social media outlets, with many criticizing the prevalence of nepotism in the Arab world.
“Talk about wasta Levantine-style,” one Lebanese person tweeted, using the colloquial Lebanese Arabic term for clout and/or nepotism.
MEA’s Public Relations Officer Rima Makkawi said the carrier was investigating why the plane was forced to return to Beirut, saying the earlier statement quoted rumors “and not the company’s reasoning.”
“We want to investigate what happened,” Makkawi told The Daily Star.
The Public Relations department has since issued a clarification saying it was awaiting the result of the investigation. “What was published was news and conclusions some of the passengers talked about,” the statement said. Marwan Salha, acting chairman of MEA, told Reuters of a sequence of events similar to that in MEA’s first statement and said airline staff looked for Amiri and his friend in the business lounge.
Salha said that when Amiri arrived at the closed gate he was angry and said: “I will not allow the plane to land in Baghdad.”
Upon its return to Beirut, the flight to Baghdad was canceled, forcing 71 people on board the plane to cancel their trip and find a new flight.
A source at Beirut airport said the passengers told the same story.
Newly appointed Public Transport Minister Ghazi Zeaiter said he personally asked for the flight to be canceled in retaliation for Iraqi authorities’ decision not to allow the plane to land.
“The immediate decision I took was to ask that the plane not return [to Baghdad],” Zeaiter told The Daily Star. “The least they [Iraq] could do is apologize for the incident.”
A source close to the issue said on condition of anonymity that Iraqi authorities informally apologized and blamed it on “childish behavior.”
Zeaiter asked the Civil Aviation to swiftly launch an investigation along with Beirut airport authorities and MEA to reveal the circumstances behind the incident.
Although the minister insisted he wanted to wait for the results of the Lebanese Civil Aviation’s report before taking any measures, he did say that the passenger was negligent and failed to respond to repeated calls to board at the airport.
“We are now in contact with Iraqi authorities and we will follow up on the issue,” he said.
Iraq’s Transport Ministry denied the incident, saying the flight’s return was due to airport cleaning and that the minister’s son had not been scheduled to be a passenger on the plane.
Kareem al-Nouri, the transport minister’s media adviser, said: “There were cleaning operations in the airport and specific measures were taken. We asked all flights not to land in Baghdad airport after 9 a.m. [0600 GMT] but this flight arrived after this time, so we asked it to turn back.
“This information [about the minister’s son] is not true and the minister is not accepting such behavior. The minister’s son was not scheduled to take that flight at all.”