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NEW YORK (Reuters) - One of President Barack Obama's official planes flanked by an Air Force fighter jet flew low over the Statue of Liberty on Monday for a photo opportunity that reminded startled New Yorkers of the September 11 attacks.
The White House Military Office apologized for the mission, which infuriated New York City officials and prompted hundreds of financial professionals to flee their office buildings.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg criticized the federal government and his own administration for failing to warn the public, which was shocked by the image of a jumbo jet flanked by an F-16 flying near the World Trade Center site.
"The good news is it was nothing more than an inconsiderate, badly conceived and insensitive photo op with the taxpayers' money," Bloomberg told reporters.
"They should know how sensitive people would be if they had low-flying planes down around the World Trade Center site," said Bloomberg, adding that he was "furious."
New Yorkers remain sensitive to any incident evocative of the 2001 attacks, which involved hijacked airliners that destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
The U.S. Air Force said the "aerial photo mission" involved an F-16 fighter jet escort and one of the Boeing 747s designated as Air Force One when the president is aboard, which he was not. Police and the Federal Aviation Administration said three aircraft were approved for the mission.
Police said federal authorities told them not to disclose the information and to direct any inquiries to the FAA. Bloomberg blamed a breakdown in City Hall communications, saying he would have protested had he known in advance.
Louis Caldera, director of the White House Military Office, said in a statement he approved the mission and took responsibility for the decision.
"While federal authorities took the proper steps to notify state and local authorities in New York and New Jersey, it's clear that the mission created confusion and disruption. I apologize and take responsibility for any distress that flight caused," Caldera said.
Employees at the New York Mercantile Exchange, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and other institutions evacuated their buildings, and hundreds of others called the 911 emergency response line, City Councilman Daniel Garodnick wrote in a letter of complaint to the FAA.
"Thousands of people filled the streets in lower Manhattan, fearing the worst. If we had had advance warning, we could have advised our constituents not to be alarmed," Garodnick said.
Dominick Caglioti, an independent commodities trader who works next to the site where the Twin Towers formerly stood, said, "We took it upon ourselves to leave the building. We asked police downstairs about it, and they said they didn't know anything. It could have caused some real panic."
Additional reporting Mark Egan, Ellen Freilich, Robert Gibbons and Michelle Nichols in New York and David Morgan in Washington; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Eric Beech