BAGHDAD – Sweden has suspended all commercial flights to and from Iraq, the aviation authority said Tuesday, contending one of the country's passenger jets was targeted by an apparent rocket attack last week as it took off from the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah.
An Iraqi airport official denied the plane had come under fire. He blamed the incident instead on Kurds who were hunting using spotlights that the pilots mistook for the arc of an incoming missile.
Last Wednesday, pilots of the Nordic Airways plane carrying 130 passengers noticed a trail of light arcing over the aircraft just after takeoff, Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Anders Lundblad said. The McDonnell Douglas MD83 was not hit and arrived safely in Stockholm.
Lundblad said the incident was being investigated, but preliminary information suggested "some kind of rocket" was fired at the plane.
The authority suspended all commercial airline traffic between Sweden and Iraq last week pending a review of the security situation in northern Iraq.
While many helicopters have been shot down by militants in Iraq, only one commercial airplane is known to have been hit. In November 2003, a plane operated by the global delivery service DHL was struck by a shoulder-fired missile near Baghdad and forced to make an emergency landing with its wing in flames. The three crew members were unhurt.
It is rare for such violence to occur in Sulaimaniyah, a city in Iraq's relatively peaceful autonomous Kurdish region, 260 kilometers (160 miles) northeast of Baghdad.
Kamiran Ahmed, the director of the Sulaimaniyah airport, denied the plane had come under fire.
"The Swedish pilot informed us that he saw gunfire against his airplane the evening of Aug. 8," he said. "We took the necessary procedures and coordinated with the Kurdish security agency to check ... but they couldn't confirm that."
"The pilot's assumptions were wrong," he said. "In fact, the Kurdish hunters are using spotlights at night."
Birds and rabbits are most often hunted in the area.
"We interviewed more than 50 passengers who arrived in Sweden and had been on board and they said nothing happened and they hadn't seen any gunfire," Ahmed said
While there are no Kurdish officials in Stockholm, Ahmed said officials in northern Iraq had asked ordinary Kurds living in Sweden to interview the passengers.
The Swedish decision affected two small airlines: Nordic Airways, which flies once a week between Stockholm and Sulaimaniyah, and Viking Airlines, which operates four flights a week between Stockholm and Irbil, also in northern Iraq.
Nordic Airways rebooked passengers leaving Iraq on other airlines, while about 3,000 people booked on Viking Airlines flights were stranded in Iraq, the aviation authority said.
Sweden is home to more than 70,000 Iraqi immigrants, many of whom come from the Kurdish areas in northern Iraq.
Mikael Wangdahl, Chief Executive of Nordic Airways, said the Aug. 8 incident was immediately reported to air traffic controllers and the U.S. military. The pilots were then advised to continue the flight, but to take a shorter route.
Passengers and cabin crew did not notice what happened, Wangdahl said, but crew members were briefed about it after the plane landed in Stockholm.
The Sulaimaniyah airport, a former Iraqi military landing strip used in the Iran-Iraq war and later deserted, was reopened by Kurds cooperating with U.S. forces in early 2003, weeks before the start of the war.