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TEHRAN, Iran — Iran's defense minister said Friday that a U.S. drone violated Iranian airspace a week ago when the Pentagon says the pilotless aircraft came under fire. The U.S. maintains the drone was over international waters.
"Last week, an unknown aircraft entered Iran's airspace in the Persian Gulf," said Gen. Ahmad Vahidi. "It was forced to leave on time by a wise and strong reaction on the part of the Iranian armed forces."
Vahidi's remarks came a day after the Pentagon said an Iranian military plane fired on — at least twice — but did not hit an unarmed U.S. drone a week ago. A Pentagon spokesman said the pilotless aircraft was in international airspace over the Persian Gulf and returned to base unharmed.
The shooting in the Gulf, which occurred just before 5 a.m. Nov. 1, was unprecedented, though it marked the second incident involving a U.S. drone and Iran.
Last December, a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone equipped with stealth technology was captured in eastern Iran. Tehran claims it brought down the aircraft, but U.S. officials said the drone malfunctioned and had to land.
Vahidi, the Iranian defense minister, was quoted Friday by the country's official IRNA news agency as saying last week's incident "proves that Iran monitors all moves (in the Gulf) and will apply necessary and strong action when needed."
His remarks followed those of Iranian lawmaker Mohammad Saleh Jokar, who earlier Friday told state-owned yjc.ir news website that Iranian fighters shot at the U.S. drone because it had entered Iranian airspace.
"Violation of the airspace of Iran was the reason for shooting at the American drone," Jokar said. "This showed Iran has the necessary readiness to defend against any invasion."
Also, the semi-official Fars news agency quoted Masoud Jazayeri, a senior general in the powerful Revolutionary Guard, as saying Iran would confront any "flying object" that entered its air space and would "strongly respond to any ground, sea or air invasion."
Pentagon press secretary George Little said Thursday that the U.S. drone was performing "routine surveillance" and was about 26 kilometers (16 miles) off the Iranian coast when an Iranian SU-25 warplane intercepted it and opened fire. He said it was the first time an unmanned U.S. aircraft was shot at in international airspace over the Gulf.
"Our aircraft was never in Iranian air space. It was always flying in international air space," Little told Pentagon reporters. He said the U.S. informed the Iranians that it would continue to conduct such surveillance flights in international airspace.
In the case of the Sentinel drone, after initially saying only that a drone had been lost near the Afghan-Iran border, American officials eventually confirmed the plane was monitoring Iran's military and nuclear facilities. Washington asked for it back but Iran refused and instead released photos of Iranian officials studying the aircraft.
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have been high over Iran's suspected nuclear program. The U.S and its allies believe Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon. Iran denies the charge, saying its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes only, such as power generation and cancer treatment.