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JEDDAH, April 14: A midair tragedy was averted Thursday when a Garuda Indonesia plane bound for Jeddah was forced to turn back over Indian airspace after a nuclear-capable ballistic missile streaked across the sky. Another Garuda plane bound for Riyadh had to delay its departure because of the test.

India’s flag carrier, Air-India, also said one of its incoming passenger flights from Singapore had to return to the city-state because of the missile launch.

India carried out a test on Thursday of its longest-range ballistic missile, the Agni III, which is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead more than 3,000 km.

According to Muhammad Helmy, Garuda’s general manager in Jeddah, “Garuda’s Jeddah-bound regular Flight 980, carrying 390 passengers and 21 crew, had to return to Jakarta on Thursday afternoon. The Colombo air traffic control (ATC) informed the captain of the Boeing 747 that the airspace was closed and he must not enter it.”

Flight 980 returned to Jakarta and took off again for Jeddah seven hours later. Another Garuda plane bound for Riyadh was also delayed because of the test. “The Jeddah flight, which was scheduled to arrive here at 3 p.m., landed at King Abdulaziz Airport at 10 p.m., and flew back after two hours. Our Jakarta-Riyadh Flight 984 also had to delay its departure from Jakarta,” Helmy said.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Kristianto Legowo told a news briefing in Jakarta that India’s ambassador to Indonesia would be called to explain the incident. “The Indian ambassador must explain as soon as possible why the incident happened since the airspace should have been closed…closed airspace is alerted to international authorities but the fact is, our plane flew and had to return,” Legowo said. The spokesman said such information was usually passed on to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

India claimed that the bodies concerned had been informed about the test. “A notice was sent a week before the test by Indian aviation authorities to ATC Jakarta and other ATCs in the region, informing them about the launch window dates, danger time, zone and height,” Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna told reporters in New Delhi. “The ATCs were requested to take action to issue notice to aviators and mariners in accordance with relevant ICAO provisions,” said Sarna.

“India’s missile testing program has always followed the requisite safety precautions,” the spokesman added.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Legowo did not say how close the missile was to the plane. But sources in Jeddah, on condition of anonymity, said that the captain of Flight 980 saw orange and yellow smoke coming from the missile as it rocketed skyward.


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