TEHERAN • An Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander has revealed that he had suspected all along that Iran shot down a Ukrainian jetliner last week, which killed all 176 on board including 82 Iranians, saying "I wish I could die" when he first learnt about the air tragedy.
The dramatic reversal by Iran yesterday came after the government had for days repeatedly denied Western accusations that it was responsible.
The plane was shot down early on Wednesday, hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing US troops in Iraq, in retaliation for the killing of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani in an American air strike in Baghdad.
General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the Guards' aerospace division, said he raised the possibility that a missile had brought down the plane the same day it happened, and has accepted full responsibility.
In an address broadcast by state television, he said Guards forces ringing the capital had beefed up their air defences and were at the "highest level of readiness", fearing that the United States would retaliate for the military base attacks.
Gen Hajizadeh said the troops at the anti-aircraft battery mistook the flight for a cruise missile, though the plane was moving at just over 500kmh.
Cruise missiles travel at faster speeds.
He also said the missile battery's crew had "only 10 seconds" to make a decision and their radios were jammed, something he did not elaborate on. An officer subsequently made the "bad decision" to open fire on the plane.
"I wish I could die and not witness such an accident," said Gen Hajizadeh. The Guards, he noted, had suggested that Teheran should close its airspace as they had prepared for "an all-out conflict" with the US, though officials took no action.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on the armed forces to "pursue probable shortcomings and guilt in the painful incident".