The Middle Eastern men removed from a Washington-bound flight Sunday were Qatari military officials headed to meet with Pentagon counterparts, officials said yesterday.
"There was a delegation from Qatar that was supposed to meet with DOD officials for a bilateral defense talk with counterparts from the DOD," a Pentagon spokeswoman said last night.
The spokeswoman described the planned talks as "an important opportunity to continue building on the strong cooperative relationship which we have with Qatar."
"We regret that the incident occurred," said the spokeswoman, Air Force Maj. Susan Idziak.
She said that the meeting was not held and that she did not know whether it had been rescheduled.
The incident began shortly after 1 p.m. aboard US Airways Flight 480 from Orlando to Reagan National Airport. A federal air marshal reported that a group of about a half-dozen Middle Eastern men appeared to be behaving in a suspicious manner.
The men appeared to know each other and were gesturing to each other, a spokesman for the air marshal service said. After the marshal reported the behavior to the crew, the Boeing 727-4000 with more than 140 passengers was diverted to Jacksonville, Fla.
Those who had aroused suspicion were asked to leave the airplane. Their bags were examined, and the men were questioned.
It was determined that the men presented no threat, and they were booked onto a later flight, the air marshal spokesman said.
That flight was reported delayed by weather, and it could not be confirmed last night that the Qatari delegation reached Washington.
Qatari officials authorized to discuss the matter could not be reached last night. A State Department media duty officer said she had no information about the situation. A US Airways spokeswoman could not confirm that the men had arrived.
Brian Doyle, a spokesman for the air marshal service, said that "from reports I've heard, the Qataris have said it's no hard feelings." Qatar is a country of about 750,000 people on the Persian Gulf.
In the years since terrorists hijacked and crashed airliners Sept. 11, 2001, numerous incidents have been made public in which passengers were removed from flights after arousing suspicion.
However, the Sunday incident appeared to be the first in which those removed turned out to be government officials.
Criteria for removing passengers have not been spelled out in detail.
In an August incident, passengers told the San Francisco Chronicle that five people with Romanian passports were removed from a San Francisco-to-London flight before takeoff.
One passenger told the newspaper that the airplane's captain had announced: "There are some people on the plane that we do not feel comfortable flying with."
"You take into account any number of behavior patterns," Doyle, of the air marshal service, said.
"It's not about race. It's someone doing something a little odd. It's not criminal. It's just a little odd," Doyle said.
One of the passengers on the Sunday flight, William Epke, said another passenger told him that the men deemed suspicious "were doing all kinds of funny hand signals between them.
"She said it was very strange," Epke said. "There was a lot of communication between the men and a lot by hand signal."
Staff writer Allan Lengel contributed to this report.