Iran says it 'unintentionally' shot down Ukrainian jetliner, after repeatedly denying responsibility

Rescue workers search the scene where a Ukraine International Airlines plane crashed near Teheran on Jan 8, 2020. PHOTO: AP
Debris of the Ukraine International Airlines plane that crashed after take-off from Iran's Imam Khomeini airport, near Teheran,, on Jan 8, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS
Rescue workers are seen near debris of Ukraine International Airlines plane that crashed after taking off from Iran's Imam Khomeini airport near Teheran on Jan 8, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

TEHERAN (AP, REUTERS, AFP) - Iran announced on Saturday (Jan 11) that its military "unintentionally" shot down the Ukrainian jetliner that crashed earlier this week, killing all 176 aboard, after the government had repeatedly denied Western accusations that it was responsible.

The plane was shot down early 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 General Qassem Soleimani in an American airstrike in Baghdad. No one was wounded in the attack on the bases.

A military statement carried by state media said the plane was mistaken for a "hostile target" after it turned towards a "sensitive military centre" of the Revolutionary Guard.

The military was at its "highest level of readiness", it said, amid the heightened tensions with the United States.

"In such a condition, because of human error and in a unintentional way, the flight was hit," the statement said. It apologised for the disaster and said it would upgrade its systems to prevent such "mistakes" in the future. It also said those responsible for the strike on the plane would be prosecuted.

Iran "deeply regrets" the accidental shooting down of the airliner, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a tweet on Saturday. "The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake," he wrote on Twitter. "My thoughts and prayers go to all the mourning families. I offer my sincerest condolences."

The investigation will continue, Rouhani wrote in a separate tweet.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the top authority in the Islamic Republic, was informed about the accidental shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner on Friday and said information should be publicly announced after a meeting of Iran's top security body, the semi-official Fars news agency said in a tweet.

Iran's foreign minister offered his country's "profound regrets, apologies and condolences" Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter. "Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster," he said. "Our profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations."

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Saturday closure and accountability were needed. He also demanded "transparency, and justice for the families and loved ones of the victims", of whom many were Canadian dual nationals.

"This is a national tragedy, and all Canadians are mourning together," Trudeau's office said in a statement.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky demanded that Iran punish those responsible. "We expect Iran... to bring the guilty to the courts," the Ukrainian leader wrote on Facebook, calling also for the "payment of compensation".

The jetliner, a Boeing 737 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines, went down on the outskirts of Teheran shortly after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport.

Iran had denied for several days that a missile caused the crash. But then the US and Canada, citing intelligence, said they believed Iran shot down the aircraft.

The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, at least 57 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials.

Iran's acknowledgement of responsibility for the crash was likely to inflame public sentiment against authorities after Iranians had rallied around their leaders in the wake of Soleimani's killing.

The general was seen as a national icon, and hundreds of thousands of Iranians had turned out for funeral processions across the country.

The crash came just weeks after authorities quashed nationwide protests ignited by a hike in gasoline prices.

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