Qatar on Wednesday expressed regret for causing distress to women after officials at the Hamad International Airport forcibly examined women passengers to identify if they had given birth to a baby and abandoned it at the Doha airport earlier this month, AP reported.

Initial reports had suggested that authorities had conducted invasive vaginal examinations on women passengers of Qatar Airways Flight 908 to Sydney on October 2. However, Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced on Wednesday that women on 10 flights were forced to undergo the searches, according to AFP. This included 18 women on the flight to Sydney. Without revealing the details of other flights, she called the incident “grossly disturbing” and “offensive”.

Wednesday’s statement is the first official reaction of the Qatar government, and it came after Australia and international bodies repeatedly condemned the searches and put pressure on Doha for an investigation.

“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,” Qatar’s Government Communications Office said in a statement. Officials searched for the parents on flights near where the newborn was found, it added.

Qatar is a conservative Muslim country, where sex outside marriage is a criminal offence. The discovery of the newborn is an egregious and life-threatening violation of the law, the government said.

The statement said that the newborn girl was concealed in a plastic bag and buried in a garbage bin. “The baby girl was rescued from what appeared to be a shocking and appalling attempt to kill her,” the government said. “The infant is now safe under medical care in Doha”. It added that Prime Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al-Thani had ordered an investigation in the matter.

International watchdog Human Rights Watch on Tuesday said that such forced gynecological examinations can amount to sexual assault as the “women were given no information and did not have an opportunity to provide informed consent”.

“The reported invasion of these women’s privacy is rightfully making headlines,” the organisation said. “But the circumstances that might have led a woman to leave the baby in the airport bathroom should be too.” Qatar should prohibit forced gynecological exams and also decriminalise sex outside of wedlock, it said.

The organisation added:

“In Qatar and across the Gulf region, sexual relations outside of wedlock are criminalised, meaning a pregnant woman who is not married, even if the pregnancy is the result of rape, may end up facing arrest and prosecution. Hospitals are required to report women pregnant outside of wedlock to the authorities. Abortion is also criminalised with limited exceptions including that women must have their husband’s consent. Low-paid migrant women, like the more than 100,000 migrant domestic workers, in Qatar are disproportionately impacted by such policies.

The alleged actions of the Qatari authorities on October 2 would have failed many women – the unknown woman apparently forced to give birth in an airport toilet, unable to ask for assistance with her labor or on what to do with the baby, and the multiple women reportedly pulled off the plane for examinations.”

— Human Rights Watch

Local reports from Australia said that the women were examined in an ambulance on the tarmac, while a passenger said that all women, irrespective of their age, were examined without any explanation.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the treatment of the women was “appalling” and “unacceptable”. “As a father of a daughter, I could only shudder at the thought that anyone, Australian or otherwise, would be subjected to that,” he said. The Australian Federal Police are also conducting investigation in the matter.