Iran announced Saturday 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 Gen. 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 toward a “sensitive military center” 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 an unintentional way, the flight was hit,” the military said. It apologized and said it would upgrade its systems to prevent future tragedies. It also said those responsible for the strike on the plane would be prosecuted.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky demanded Saturday that Iran punish those responsible for the downing of a Ukrainian airliner and pay compensation. “We expect Iran… to bring the guilty to the court,” the Ukrainian leader wrote on Facebook, calling also for the “payment of compensation.”
He has scheduled a “telephone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for five pm (1500 GMT) on Saturday,” the presidential press office said in a statement.
Ukraine’s prime minister says Iran’s admission that it shot down the Ukrainian passenger jet isn’t the end of investigating the catastrophe.
The admission “is an important step in the investigation process, which is still ongoing,” Oleksiy Honcharuk said in a Facebook post on Saturday. “Our experts are continuing to work at the scene of the tragedy with the aim of a detailed investigation of the causes and the final establishment of the truth.”
The head of the Ukrainian International Airlines Evgeniy says he was sure all along that that the company was not at fault. “We did not for a second doubt that our crew and our plane could not have been the cause of this terrible, awful air catastrophe,” he said on Facebook. “They were our best guys and girls. The best.”
The airlines said in a briefing on Saturday that its plane had received no warning from Tehran airport about a possible threat before it took off. The president and vice president of the airline also denied suggestions that the passenger plane had veered off its normal course, and said that the Iranian authorities should have closed the airport.
Iran’s acknowled-gement 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. But the majority of the plane crash victims were Iranians or Iranian-Canadians, and the crash came just weeks after authorities quashed nationwide protests ignited by a hike in gasoline prices.
Iran has invited the United States, Ukraine, Canada and others to join the crash investigation.
Russia also reacted to the admission as the chairman of the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee said that Iran must “learn lessons” from the disaster. “If decryption of the black boxes and the work of the investigation do not prove that the Iranian army did this intentionally, and there are no logical reasons for this, the incident must be closed.
“Hoping that lessons will be learned and action taken by all parties,” said Konstantin Kosachev, quoted by the Interfax news agency. Amirali Hajizadeh, the Revolutionary Guard’s head of aerospace, later on Saturday said that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard accepted full responsibility for the disaster, in a video posted online by Iranian state television.
“I wish I could die and not witness such an accident,” Hajizadeh said, according to Reuters.