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Iran blames ‘disastrous mistake’ for the downing of Flight 752.
After maintaining for days that there was no evidence that one of its missiles had struck a Boeing 737-800 minutes after it took off from Tehran on Wednesday with 176 people on board, Iran admitted early on Saturday that its military had shot down the passenger jet by mistake.
The military blamed human error. In a statement, it said Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 had taken a sharp, unexpected turn that brought it near a sensitive military base. Hours later, though, an Iranian official walked back that claim.
“The plane was flying in its normal direction without any error and everybody was doing their job correctly,” Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ airspace unit, said during a televised news conference later Saturday. “If there was a mistake, it was made by one of our members.”
In a post on Twitter, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohamad Javad Zarif, apologized but appeared to also blame American “adventurism” for the tragedy, writing: “Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster.”
President Hassan Rouhani said on Twitter that Iran “deeply regrets this disastrous mistake.”
In a statement cited by the semiofficial Fars News Agency, the president offered condolences to the victims’ families and said that “the terrible catastrophe should be thoroughly investigated” and those responsible would be prosecuted.
But facing the possibility of American military strikes on Iran on Wednesday, Mr. Rouhani added, the armed forces made a “human mistake.”
“This painful incident is not something we can easily overcome,” he added, saying that was imperative to correct shortcomings in the country’s defense mechanisms.
Fury in the streets as thousands gather in Tehran.
Iranians vented fury toward their government after Tehran’s admission, with thousands pouring into main squares around the city Saturday afternoon. Gatherings organized on social media to mourn the victims of the crash swiftly turned into angry protests against the government’s actions.
“Death to liars!” and “Death to the dictator!” people chanted, according to videos posted on social media. “You have no shame,” shouted several young men, as the crowd joined in a chorus, another video showed.
The country’s elite security force was not spared. At universities, crowds called the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps “incompetent” and “the people’s shame.”
But as protests spread throughout the capital and to other cities, the public’s anger seemed to find a one clear target: Ayatollah Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader and its commander in chief.
In Tehran, video posted to social media showed, protesters demanded that Mr. Khamenei resign, thrusting their fists in the air and screaming: “Khamenei is a murderer! His regime is obsolete!”
The protests turned violent in Tehran with anti-riot police using tear gas and opening water cannons at the crowd, videos showed.
Even conservatives and supporters of the government accused the authorities on social media of initially misleading the public about what had brought down the plane, whose passengers included many young Iranians on their way to Canada for graduate study.
The semiofficial Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, posted a harsh commentary condemning Iran’s leaders, saying “their shortcomings have made this tragedy twice as bitter.”
“It is pivotal that those who were hiding the truth from the public for the past 72 hours be held accountable, we cannot let this go,” it read.
“Individuals, media, political and military officials who commented in the past 72 hours must be investigated. If they knew of the truth and were deliberately speaking falsehood or for any reason were trying to hide it, they must be prosecuted, no matter what post they hold.”
Flights In and Out of Tehran Continued After Missile Strikes and Plane Crash
Planes took off after Iran’s missile strikes on bases in Iraq, and even after a Ukrainian plane crashed shortly after takeoff.
Siamak Ghaesmi, a Tehran-based economist, addressed the country’s leaders in an Instagram post: “I don’t know what to do with my rage and grief. I’m thinking of all the ‘human errors’ in these years that were never revealed because there was no international pressure. I’m thinking of the little trust left that was shattered. I’m thinking of the innocent lives lost because of confronting and being stubborn with the world. What have you done with us?”
Mohamad Saeed Ahadian, a conservative analyst in Iran, said on Twitter, “There are two major problems with the Ukrainian Airlines issue. One is firing at an airplane and two is firing at the public’s trust. The first can be justified, but the latter is a mistake with absolutely no justification.”
Some social media posts made use of the term “harsh revenge,” which Iran’s leaders had promised to inflict on the United States for the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a top Revolutionary Guards commander; an Iraqi militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis; and others as they left the airport in Baghdad. The general’s killing sent shock waves through the Middle East and led to calls for revenge in Iran, as well as a vote by Iraq’s Parliament to oust American troops from that country.
Mojtaba Fathi, an Iranian journalist, wrote on Twitter, “They were supposed to take their harsh revenge against America, not the people.”
Ukraine’s president wants ‘a full admission of guilt.’
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, in his first reaction to Iran’s announcement, said Kyiv would “insist on a full admission of guilt” by Tehran.
“We expect Iran to assure its readiness for a full and open investigation, to bring those responsible to justice, to return the bodies of the victims, to pay compensation, and to make official apologies through diplomatic channels,” Mr. Zelensky said in a post on his Facebook page. “We hope that the investigation will continue without artificial delays and obstacles.”
Mr. Zelensky had come under domestic criticism this week for refusing to publicly blame Iran for the disaster even as the United States, Canada and Britain did.
Iran’s announcement on Saturday vindicated Mr. Zelensky’s cautious approach, said Ivan Yakovina, a columnist for the Kyiv-based magazine Novoye Vremya. “If there had been threats from Ukraine, then I believe Iran wouldn’t have allowed the specialists to do their jobs and generally would have refused to admit guilt,” he said.
Later, the office of the Ukrainian president posted on Facebook photos of what it said was shrapnel damage on the plane wreckage and a Canadian man’s passport showing piercings about half an inch in diameter.
Mr. Zelensky’s office said on Saturday that Iran had cooperated in Ukraine’s investigation of the crash and that Ukraine’s investigators had “received all of the necessary information from the beginning.”
That contrasted with remarks by the head of the Ukrainian investigation, Oleksiy Danilov, who said on Saturday that Iran had been forced to let in the Ukrainian investigators because the International Civil Aviation Organization would have closed off its airspace.
“As we saw it, Iran had to face the reality that there’s no way they’ll get out of this,” he said.
Mr. Danilov said Iranian authorities had also complicated the investigation by scraping the wreckage into piles rather than photographing and mapping the coordinates. In general, he said, they had acted “inappropriately.”
“When a catastrophe happens, everything is supposed to stay in its place.” Mr. Danilov said. “Every element is described, every element is photographed, every element is fixed in terms of its location and coordinates. To our great regret, this was not done.”
At some point, he said, Iranian officials realized there was no way to hide the facts from Ukraine, whose investigators found shrapnel marks in wreckage.
Iranian officials did not immediately respond to the accusations.
Ukraine airline said there was ‘no deviation’ in jet’s flight path.
Flight 752 followed the same departure route as other planes leaving on Wednesday, Igor Sosnovsky, the airline’s vice president for flight operations, told reporters on Saturday. “There was no deviation from any routes that some are hinting at,” he said.
Iranian officials initially said that the plane had taken an unexpected turn that brought it near a sensitive military base, but hours later a top official walked back that claim and said the plane was flying in a “normal” direction.
The airline presented maps showing the jet took a similar path out of the airport as other departures Wednesday morning — and the same path that Flight 752 had taken on dozens of previous departures from November to January.
Iran’s decision not to shut down its airspace on Wednesday morning, shortly after it struck American positions in Iraq, was “absolutely irresponsible,” Mr. Sosnovskiy said.
“When you act in war, then you act however you wish,” he said at a news conference. “But there must be protection around ordinary people. If they are shooting somewhere from somewhere, they are obliged to close the airport.”
Yevhen Dykhne, the airline’s president, said the Iranians had provided no information about possible risks before the plane’s takeoff.
An Iranian commander said he accepted responsibility.
A commander of the aerospace division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iran, Amirali Hajizadeh, said on Saturday that he accepted responsibility for the plane’s downing minutes after takeoff in Tehran, according to Iranian state TV.
In a televised address, he gave more details about the sequence of events that he said had led to the disaster. He said it had been misidentified as a cruise missile, and was shot down with a short-range missile.
He also said that the Iranian missile operator had acted independently because of “jamming.”
“I wish I was dead,” Mr. Hajizadeh was quoted as saying by local news outlets. “I accept all responsibility for this incident.”
He said that whatever decision the Iranian authorities made, “I will accept with the arms open.”
The downing came hours after Iran had fired a barrage of missiles at two American air bases in neighboring Iraq, in retaliation for an American drone strike that killed a top Iranian general, an Iraqi militia leader and others in Baghdad.
Asked during his address why Iranian airspace was not shut to commercial air traffic amid the attacks, Mr. Hajizadeh had no clear answer.
French experts will assist in decoding black boxes.
French specialists will help decode the black boxes of the Ukrainian plane that crashed in Iran, the presidents of the two countries said on Saturday.
President Emmanuel Macron of France told his Ukrainian counterpart in a telephone call that France had also started a formal procedure to begin an international investigation. Mr. Macron agreed to visit Kyiv as well.
Western nations had turned up the pressure on Tehran.
International pressure had been building on Iran to take responsibility. American and allied officials had said that all intelligence assessments indicated that surface-to-air missiles fired by Iranian military forces had shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752.
Hours after the crash, Ukraine International Airlines officials had consistently ruled out pilot error or mechanical problems as the cause of the crash. They had said the Boeing 737-800, which was less than four years old, was helmed by some of the airline’s most experienced crew.
“We never thought for a second that our crew and our plane could have been the reason for this terrible, horrific aviation catastrophe,” the airline’s president, Yevhenii Dykhne, said in a Facebook post on Saturday after Iran’s admission. “These were our best young men and women. The best.”
The crew maintained normal radio contact with the tower in Tehran, airline officials said, and followed a standard departure procedure for the airport. After reaching an elevation of 6,000 feet, the pilots were instructed to make a slight northerly turn. In the last communication, he said, one pilot simply read back this instruction from the tower, saying, “Turn and climb.”
Addressing criticism that the airline should not have sent a plane to Iran at all, in light of tensions in the region, the officials said it was Iran’s responsibility to close airspace if it intended to fire missiles.
There was no immediate reaction from the United States to Iran’s admission, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been the first American official to publicly confirm the intelligence assessments.
“We do believe that it’s likely that the plane was shot down by an Iranian missile,” Mr. Pompeo said at a briefing at the White House announcing new sanctions against Iran on Friday.
Iran’s president apologizes to Ukraine’s leader in a phone call.
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran called his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, on Saturday to apologize for the downing of Flight 752.
Mr. Rouhani told Mr. Zelensky that errors made by the Iranian military led to the plane being shot down and that those responsible would be punished, according to Ukraine’s summary of the call.
Mr. Rouhani’s statement appeared to be the latest effort at damage control by Iran, whose military first claimed that the Ukrainian flight crew had made a sharp, unexpected turn toward a military base, only to retract that accusation a few hours later.
Mr. Zelensky, in a tweet after the phone call, described Iran’s acknowledgment of the missile strike as “a step in the right direction.” He told Mr. Rouhani that the bodies of the 11 Ukrainian victims needed to be identified and repatriated by Jan. 19.
“The acknowledgment of the ‘missile version’ of events as the cause of the catastrophe has opened the door to continuing the investigation without any delays or obstacles,” Mr. Zelensky said in a statement. “I expect further constructive cooperation with Iran in accordance with the norms of international law.”
Trudeau calls for ‘closure’ and ‘accountability.’
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada said on Saturday that “accountability” was needed after Iran’s admission, according to a statement from his office. He has said his country expects to play a big role in the investigation into the crash, which killed 57 Canadians
“Our focus remains closure, accountability, transparency and justice for the families and loved ones of the victims,” the statement said. “This is a national tragedy, and all Canadians are mourning together.
“We will continue working with our partners around the world to ensure a complete and thorough investigation, and the Canadian government expects full cooperation from Iranian authorities.”
The Canadians who died on the flight included a number of students and faculty at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. More than 25 residents of Edmonton were on the plane.
In Canada, Iranians are comparative newcomers: Most arrived after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Today, by some counts, Canada has the third-largest number of expatriate Iranians in the world and its universities are a top destination for Iranian graduate students.
All sides should ‘learn lessons,’ a Russian official said.
Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the foreign relations committee in the Russian Senate, said Iran’s admission showed the downing of the plane had been a “tragic incident” and should not lead to further escalation between Iran and the West.
“It was a tragic incident; people cannot be returned,” Mr. Kosachev told the Interfax news agency. “The admission of error, although not immediate, and expression of condolences is sufficient to be accepted. With this, the incident should be closed.”
All sides should “learn lessons” from what happened, he said.
Mr. Kosachev also pushed back on reports that the missile used to strike the plane had been Russian-made. He did not deny the missile’s origin, but rejected any Russian responsibility for what had happened. “At the height of this tragedy,” he said, “it is absolutely immoral.”
American intelligence officials have said that a Russian-made missile system designated SA-15 by NATO and known in Russia as the Tor struck the civilian airliner shortly after takeoff.
How does the missile system work?
The Tor system is a mobile missile launch system, with eight missiles carried on either a tracked vehicle or a truck. The vehicles can operate without relying on other air defense infrastructure.
They carry both a radar to detect targets and a launch system. The low- to medium-altitude missiles were developed by Soviet engineers in the 1970s as a so-called lower-tier air defense weapon.
A New York Times analysis of flight path information and video of the missile strike determined that the plane stopped transmitting its signal for between 20 seconds and 30 seconds before it was hit.
Civilian airplanes identify themselves with radio signals constantly streaming from a system known as a transponder on the planes, said Ian Petchenik, a spokesman for Flightradar 24, which tracks the signals for flights around the world.
The Tor software relied on radar and visual identification of a plane as well as the identification signals from the transponder, John Cox, an accident investigator and former pilot who is the chief executive of Safety Operating Systems, said. If the identification is incorrect or absent from the plane, Mr. Cox said, the system “will declare it a threat.”
From there, he said, the missile navigates via radar, “and when it gets in proximity to target it explodes,” releasing deadly fragments. A second missile is usually fired immediately after the first.
At that point, the plane, in flames, glided down to its demise.
Reporting was contributed by Farnaz Fassihi, Anton Troianovski, Ian Austen, Andrew E. Kramer, James Glanz, Malachy Browne, Christiaan Triebert and Ivan Nechepurenko.