Protests in Tehran after Iran admitted shooting down plane
A group of Iranian protesters has demanded Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei step down after Tehran said its military mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian plane, killing all 176 people on board.
“Commander-in-chief [Khamenei] resign, resign,” videos posted on Twitter showed hundreds of people chanting in front of Tehran’s Amir Kabir University on Saturday.
Others on Twitter asked why the plane was allowed to take off when tensions in Iran were so high.
Fars news agency reported that Iranian police dispersed students that were chanting “radical” slogans during the gathering in Tehran.
The students chanted slogans denouncing “liars” and demanded the resignation and prosecution of those responsible for downing the plane and allegedly covering up the accidental action.
Fars said the protesting students chanted “destructive” and “radical” slogans.
Earlier on Saturday, Iran said its military had shot down the Ukrainian plane, calling it a “disastrous mistake”.
The military claimed air defences were fired in error during an alert which was imposed after Iranian missile struck US targets in Iraq.
Iran denied for days after Wednesday’s crash that it brought down the plane, although a top Revolutionary Guards commander on Saturday said he had told authorities about the unintentional missile strike the day it happened.
Speaking from Tehran, Al Jazeera Dorsa Jabbari said: “There is a lot of anger. Iranians are demanding justice and accountability. Many people including families of the victims are in shock. They do not understand why their government would have lied to them for this long.”
“Vigils that were held near Amir Kabir University quickly turned into anti-government protests with people calling for the IRGC to leave the country,” she said.
Iran’s leadership last faced mass protests in November following the rise in petrol prices.
Foreign governments have condemned Iran’s action, with Ukraine demanding compensation and a United States official calling the downing “reckless”.
The United Kingdom said Tehran’s admission was an important first step and urged a de-escalation in tensions.
Supreme leader Khamenei, until now silent about the crash, said information should be made public, while top officials and the military issued apologies.
What caused a Ukranian plane to crash in Tehran?
But the state television suggested revealing the truth might be used by the “enemies of Iran”, usually a reference to the US and Israel.
The crash heightened international pressure on Iran after months of friction with the US and tit-for-tat attacks.
A US drone strike killed a top Iranian military commander in Iraq on January 3, prompting Tehran to fire at US targets on Wednesday.
Experts said mounting international scrutiny would have made it all but impossible to hide signs of a missile strike in any investigation.
They said Iran may have felt a U-turn was better than battling rising criticism abroad and growing grief and anger at home, as many victims were Iranians with dual nationality.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), in a rare step, apologised to the nation and accepted full responsibility for the plane crash.
Senior Guards commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh said he had informed Iran’s authorities on Wednesday about the unintentional strike, a comment that raised questions about why officials had publicly denied it for so long.
Speaking on state television, he said he wished he “could die” when he heard the news about the incident.
Ukraine demanded an official apology and compensation. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for “a complete and thorough investigation” with Iran’s full cooperation.
Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter that “human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster”, citing an initial armed forces investigation into the crash.
A military statement said the plane flew close to a sensitive Revolutionary Guards site at a time of high alert.
But Ukraine said the plane was in a normal flight corridor. Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation also said the airliner had not veered off its normal course.
Ukraine International Airlines said Iran should have closed the airport, adding that it received no indication it faced a threat and was cleared for take-off.
Analysts said an investigation would almost certainly have revealed signs on the smashed fuselage of a missile strike.
“There’s nothing you can do to cover it up or hide it,” said Anthony Brickhouse, an air safety expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and former US National Transportation Safety Board investigator. “Evidence is evidence.”
The disaster echoed a 1988 incident, when a US warship shot down an Iranian airliner, killing 290 people. While Washington claimed it was an accident, Tehran said it was intentional.
Government statement blames ‘human error’ for the incident that left 176 people killed, including many Iranian citizens.
The statement on Saturday morning blames “human error” for the incident, adding that the military mistook Flight 752 for a “hostile target”.
Press TV also quoted Iran’s General Staff of the Armed Forces as saying that the plane had flown close to a “sensitive military site”.
The military said it was at its “highest level of readiness” 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 military said. It apologised and said it would upgrade its systems to prevent future tragedies.
In a statement posted on social media, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wrote that the country “deeply regrets this disastrous mistake”.
“My thoughts and prayers go to all the mourning families. I offer my sincerest condolences,” he said, adding that “investigations continue to identify and prosecute this great tragedy and unforgivable mistake”.
Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a statement on Saturday said his country expects a full admission of guilt and compensation for the jet’s downing.
“We expect from Iran assurances of their readiness for a full and open investigation, bringing those responsible to justice, the return of the bodies of the dead, the payment of compensation, official apologies through diplomatic channels,” he said.
Iran had denied for several days that a missile downed the aircraft. But then the US and Canada, citing intelligence, said they believed Iran shot down the aircraft.
On Friday, Ali Abedzadeh, head of Iran’s civil aviation authority, said it was impossible due to close coordination between Iran’s air defence and the civil aviation department.
“What is obvious for us, and what we can say with certainty, is that no missile hit the plane,” Abedzadeh told reporters in Tehran.
Acknowledging that the aeroplane had been taken down, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei on Saturday offered his condolences and called for an investigation into the incident.
The jetliner, a Boeing 737-800 operated by Ukraine International Airlines, went down on the outskirts of Tehran during takeoff just hours after Iran launched a barrage of missiles at US forces in Iraq.
Al Jazeera’s Assed Baig, reporting from Tehran, said questions were now being raised as to why Iranian authorities kept the country’s air space open during a military operation.
“There’s a lot of explaining to do by Iranian authorities. People want to know why and how it happened.”
In a social media post, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that “human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to the disaster”.
“Our profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims and to other affected nations.”
The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, when it was shot down.
“This is the right step for the Iranian government to admit responsibility and it gives people a step toward closure with this admission,” said Payman Parseyan, a prominent Iranian-Canadian in western Canada who lost a number of friends in the crash.
“I think the investigation would have disclosed it whether they admitted it or not. This will give them an opportunity to save face,” he told AP news agency.