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The Israeli Air Force came very close Wednesday afternoon to intercepting and destroying a civilian airliner that had failed to make contact with Air Traffic Control and comply with international regulations as it approached the country's airspace.
Four fighter jets - two F-15s and a pair of F-16s - buzzed a Continental Airlines flight that had originated in Newark and was carrying some 250 passengers once it came within eight kilometers of Israel, after the pilot failed to contact Ben-Gurion Airport upon his approach in line with international regulations.
A senior Air Force officer said the IAF went on high alert due to the suspicious incoming aircraft. He said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz were updated about the event and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi as well as IAF chief Maj.-Gen. Elazar Shkedy were placed "on-line" in case an interception order was needed.
"This was the closest we ever came to intercepting a civilian airplane," the officer said.
However, the IAF shot down a Libyan civilian airliner over Sinai in February, 1973 when it entered Israeli airspace, killing 108 out of the 113 people on board, after it failed to heed attempts at communication.
According to the officer, the pilot of the Boeing 777 contacted Ben-Gurion Air Traffic Control from a distance of some 325 km. from Israel but then contact was lost. Once the plane reached about a 68-km. distance from Israel - a five-minute flight to Tel Aviv - the IAF dispatched the fighter jets to inspect the aircraft and ensure that it had not been taken over by terrorists.
Continental Airlines issued a statement that said the following:
"Continental Airlines Flight 90 from Newark with 251 passengers landed safely in Tel Aviv at 4:30 this afternoon. Before the arrival, there was a temporary lapse in communications between the plane and the Air Traffic Control tower, and responsibility for the flight was passed from one control tower to a second one.
"As a result of this, the Air Force made contact with the plane and escorted it to its landing at its intended destination - Ben-Gurion Airport."
The airline said it was investigating the situation to avoid similar such incidents in the future.
Nathan Burstein contributed to this report.