UAE says Qatar jets came near plane, helicopter; Doha denies

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A top Emirati aviation official accused Qatar on Tuesday of allowing its military fighter jets to come dangerously close to a large airplane and a helicopter, allegations immediately denied by Doha amid an Arab boycott of the energy-rich Gulf nation.

Speaking to The Associated Press, Ismaeil al-Blooshi of the General Civil Aviation Authority left open the possibility Emirati officials would formally order its many commercial aircraft to stay away from Qatar, citing earlier decisions not to fly over territory once held by the Islamic State group.

While the claims and counterclaims represent just the latest dispute within the wider diplomatic crisis tearing at Gulf Arab nations, aviation remains the lifeblood of Dubai, home to the world's busiest international airport. Any disruptions or new routes would affect millions of travelers passing through the region.

"I can assure the general public ... we will take all necessary measures to protect the safety of aviation," said al-Blooshi, the GCAA's assistant director-general for aviation safety. "If there is a need for such action, we will definitely take it."

Al-Blooshi declined to offer specifics about the aircraft involved in the alleged incidents Monday in international waters off the coast of Bahrain, an island near Saudi Arabia.

However, Bahrain's state-run news agency identified the plane as an Airbus A320 with a tail number corresponding to an aircraft flown by the ruling family of Fujairah, one of the UAE's seven emirates. Fujairah officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The Emirati aircraft was at 32,000 feet (9,755 meters) and climbing when it noticed a "blip" on its radar, al-Blooshi said. Within minutes, the Qatari fighter jets came within 700 feet (213 meters) of the Emirati aircraft, causing collision-avoidance warnings to sound and forcing pilots to quickly climb to 35,000 feet (10,670 meters), he said.

His comments mirror those reported by officials in Bahrain, another of the nations along with the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia now boycotting Doha.

Data from FlightRadar24, a flight-tracking website, shows that an Airbus A320 associated with Fujairah's ruling family flew Monday en route to Rome and did climb to 35,000 feet near Bahrain. However, that data did not offer an explanation for the gain in altitude.

The second incident, involving the helicopter, happened at 7,000 feet (2,133 meters) and authorities have less information, al-Blooshi said. He said an investigation into both incidents was underway.

Across the world, military aircraft are understood to have wide latitude in their operations. However, al-Blooshi called the Qatari fighter jets' alleged conduct Monday dangerous.

The state-run Qatar News Agency issued a statement from civil aviation authorities late Monday denying the Emirati claims and calling it an attempt to cover up previous violations of Qatari airspace. Qatar accused Emirati military jets of violating its air space in December and January in two incidents, filing a complaint to the U.N.

The UAE denied those allegations and filed its own complaints over similar alleged incidents in January.

Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE cut off Qatar's land, sea and air routes on June 5 over its alleged support of extremists and close ties with Iran.

Qatar has long denied funding extremists, though it supports Islamist opposition movements that are considered terrorist groups by other countries in the region. After the boycott began, Doha restored full diplomatic ties with Iran, with which it shares a massive offshore natural gas field.

The diplomatic crisis has hurt Qatar Airways, Doha's long-haul carrier that competes with UAE airlines Emirates and Etihad.

Qatar had complained to the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization about the boycotting nations cutting off its air routes, forcing the carrier to take longer flights through Iran and Turkey. Its regional feeder flights in Saudi Arabia and the UAE also have been cut off.

Widening the Gulf dispute to include civilian aviation and airspace could hurt Emirati airlines already stung by President Donald Trump's travel bans, as well as last year's ban on laptops in airplane cabins, which has been lifted.

For those flying in the region from Dubai, passengers have gotten used to seeing flights divert either north or south over Qatar, a peninsular nation that sticks out like a thumb in the Persian Gulf. Al-Blooshi said there was no formal order from the GCAA demanding airlines fly those routes, though officials likely would consider whether to issue one after concluding their investigation.

The GCAA's chairman, Sultan bin Saeed al-Mansouri, said the UAE would complain again to the U.N. over Monday's incident. He did not elaborate while speaking to journalists outside an event featuring South Korean President Moon Jae-in.


Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at . His work can be found at .

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