The government of Qatar has said it “regrets any distress or infringement on the personal freedom of any traveler” after it was revealed that more than 18 women from 10 different flights were subjected to compulsory intimate medical examinations following the discovery of an abandoned infant at Doha international airport.
Speaking at a hearing in the Australian Senate on Wednesday morning, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that 13 Australian citizens were among those removed from the flights and forced to undergo “grossly inappropriate” inspections while transiting through Qatar on October 2.
It was not clear how many women were searched in total. An Australian Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson told CNN that 13 Australians were among 18 women searched on one flight. Women from nine other flights were also subjected to invasive internal examinations, according to the spokesperson.
Among the planes involved was Sydney-bound Qatar Airways flight 908, which landed for a transit stop in Doha, Qatar, on that day, CNN affiliate Nine News reported.
Payne said that Australia was not the only country whose citizens had been affected, but did not specify what other countries were involved.
Speaking at the same hearing, Australian Labor Party senator Penny Wong described the search as an “invasive procedure.”
Although the exact details of the incident have not been released, CNN affiliate Seven News previously reported that women were “forced to undergo an inspection in an ambulance on the tarmac.”
In a statement Wednesday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the incident was “appalling” and “unacceptable.”
“As a father of daughters, I could only shudder at the thought that any woman, Australian or otherwise, would be subjected to that,” said Morrison. “It is important that wherever travelers are traveling, that they are able to do so free of those types of incidents.”
The Qatari government said in a statement Wednesday that the search was triggered by the discovery of a newborn baby found wrapped in a plastic bag and abandoned in a trash can at Hamad International Airport.
“The baby girl was rescued from what appeared to be a shocking and appalling attempt to kill her. The infant is now safe under medical care in Doha,” the statement read.
Hamad International Airport, where the incident took place, had previously confirmed the discovery of the baby and said that medical professionals were concerned “about the health and welfare of a mother who had just given birth and requested she be located prior to departing (the airport).”
The Qatari government’s statement also defended the “urgently-decided” search for the mother, but said that the aim was to “prevent the perpetrators of the horrible crime from escaping.”
“The State of Qatar regrets any distress or infringement on the personal freedoms of any traveler caused by this action,” the statement added.
The Australian government has requested a full report on the incident from Qatar, Payne said.
Wolfgang Babeck, a passenger on flight QR 908, told CNN that there was “a very tense atmosphere” on the plane when the women returned from the tarmac.
“One lady was crying,” he said. “The others they were shell-shocked, nobody could believe what had happened. It was such a private and delicate issue. You don’t want to share that with people.”
He said the women had left the plane “in good faith, relying on the instructions of the crew.”
The Australian government said it had referred the matter to the Australian Federal Police, who told CNN they were liaising with the Department of Foreign Affairs.
This story has been updated to reflect that 13 Australian passengers were involved in the incident.