DUBAI • Anger is mounting among Iranians who have slammed the authorities for not shutting down Iran's main international airport and its airspace during a period of heightened tensions with the United States last week, which they said could have prevented the downing of a civilian plane by mistake on Wednesday.
After days of denial, Iran admitted yesterday that its military had mistaken a Ukrainian passenger plane for a US cruise missile and shot it down, killing all 176 people on board.
The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials.
The authorities said yesterday that air defences had been on high alert for US retaliatory strikes, following Iranian missile strikes on bases in Iraq housing US troops.
President Hassan Rouhani said the missiles were fired at the passenger plane "due to human error" and described the crash as an "unforgivable mistake".
But the expressions of condolence by President Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei failed to calm Iranians, who used social media to express their outrage at the establishment.
"It is a national tragedy. The way it was handled and announced by the authorities was even more tragic," said Mr Ali Ansari, a moderate cleric, according to Iran's semi-official Ilna news agency.
Many Iranians asked why the authorities did not close down Teheran's airport and the country's airspace at a time when they would have been on alert for retaliation after the missile strikes.
There were no fatalities in those strikes in Iraq, launched to avenge the Jan 3 US killing of top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike in Baghdad.
"They were so careful not to kill any American in their revenge for Soleimani. But they did not close the airport? This shows how much this regime cares for Iranians," said Ms Mira Sedaghati in Teheran by telephone.
An Iranian military statement carried by state media said the Ukrainian plane was mistaken for a "hostile target" after it turned towards a sensitive military base of the elite Revolutionary Guards near Teheran, adding that the downing of the plane was "unintentional".
"Unintentional? What does it mean? They concealed this huge tragic news for days just to mourn for Soleimani. Shame on you," said Mr Reza Ghadyani in Tabriz city.
The country held three days of funeral processions last week for Major-General Soleimani, who was head of the Revolutionary Guards' overseas Quds Force and a national hero. Hundreds of thousands of people participated across the country.
Some on social media complained about the absence of official mourning for those who died in the plane downing.
Ukraine yesterday demanded Iran punish those guilty for the downing of the airliner and compensate victims, while praising Teheran for cooperating with the "objective" investigation.
"We expect Iran... to bring the guilty to the courts," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wrote on Facebook, calling for "payment of compensation" and the return of remains.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with the country mourning the loss of many of its nationals, said closure and accountability were needed after Iran's announcement. He demanded transparency, and justice for the families and loved ones of the victims.
"This is a national tragedy and all Canadians are mourning together," Mr Trudeau's office said in a statement.
French Defence Minister Florence Parly said it was "important to seize this moment to give space to discussions and negotiations" on the Iran nuclear deal.
Iran has been hit by ever-tighter US sanctions since President Donald Trump left the 2015 nuclear deal in an effort to force Teheran into greater concessions over its nuclear programme and military posture in the Middle East.
The penalties have taken a huge toll on Iran's economy, though the government has managed to stabilise the damage in recent months.
European nations have vowed to stand by the nuclear agreement, but they have so far failed to deliver meaningful ways of allowing trade and, crucially, oil sales.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG
CAUGHT ON VIDEO
1 A video posted online purports to show the moment Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 was hit by a surface-to-air missile. There is a spark upon impact, minutes after the jetliner took off from Iran's Imam Khomeini International Airport early on Wednesday. Details in the video verify its authenticity, said The New York Times.
2 The impact causes an explosion which flares brightly but briefly. About 10 seconds pass between the flash of impact and the sound of the explosion. The delay indicates the plane was a little over 3km from the camera at the time of impact, reported The New York Times. That distance lines up with the path of Flight PS752.
3 Flaming debris is seen falling from the sky. An Iranian military statement said the plane "took the flying posture and altitude of an enemy target" as it came close to an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps base and , "under these circumstances, because of human error", the plane "came under fire".