INTERNATIONAL NEWS - Female passengers on 10 planes flying out of Doha were forced to endure invasive physical examinations, Australia's foreign minister said Wednesday, as Qatari authorities expressed regret for the distress caused to the women.
Qatar had already been under immense pressure after it was revealed that women were removed from a Sydney-bound Qatar Airways flight and forced to undergo vaginal inspections in the search for a newborn baby who had been abandoned at Doha airport.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne then announced Wednesday that the number of planes targeted was much greater than first thought.
She told parliament that women on "10 aircraft in total" had been subject to the searches, which she had earlier described as "grossly disturbing" and "offensive".
Payne said 18 women - including 13 Australians - on a the October 2 flight to Sydney were affected, along with "other foreign nationals". AFP understands one French woman on the flight was among them.
She did not detail the destinations of the other flights, adding she was unaware if any Australian women were on those planes.
Frances Adamson, head of Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said there was "distress, abhorrence and deep questioning of how this can have happened".
Officials said Australia was also working "very closely" with other countries to jointly raise concerns with Doha but refused to name those countries, citing privacy concerns of women on the Sydney-bound flight.
"There is a very strong, likeminded view about this - other countries affected absolutely share Australia's views and the strength of Australia's views," Adamson told the Senate hearing.
Qatar 'regrets distress'
Facing a potentially devastating commercial and reputational damage, Qatar's government released a statement on Wednesday to explain its version of events and promise to ensure the future "safety, security and comfort" of passengers.
"While the aim of the urgently-decided search 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 traveller caused by this action," the statement.
Prime Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al-Thani had ordered an investigation and the results would be shared with international partners, it added.
However the statement did not specifically detail that women had been forcibly examined, only referring to a "search for the parents".
The statement said the newborn baby had been found abandoned in a trash can and was wrapped in a plastic bag.
Payne said she had not spoken directly to her Qatari counterpart, and that she was "waiting to see the report" on the incident, which she expected to receive this week.
Doha's Hamad International airport had launched an appeal Sunday for the child's mother to come forward, saying the baby remains unidentified but is "safe under the professional care of medical and social workers".
Qatar Airways is one of the few airlines that has maintained flights to Australia since the country closed its international border early in the pandemic and restricted the return of its own citizens.
Experts believe the airline could suffer damage to its business, regardless of whether or not it was involved in the incident.
It may also have upended Qatar's efforts to boost its reputation before the Gulf state hosts the soccer world cup in 2022.
Doha has invested heavily in its airline, Al-Jazeera broadcaster and social projects that include women's health and educational initiatives.
But the conservative Muslim monarchy, where sex and childbirth out of wedlock are still punishable by jail, has struggled to reassure critics that its promises on women's rights, labour relations and democracy are credible.