Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 crashed Wednesday after takeoff from Tehran’s airport. The crash came hours after Iran fired missiles at Iraqi military bases housing US troops in retaliation for a drone strike at Baghdad airport that killed Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani.
In video posted on social media, protesters chanted for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to step down and for those responsible for downing the plane to be prosecuted. “Death to the dictator,” some chanted.
In one video, demonstrators chanted, “Khamenei have shame. Leave the country.”
A mass vigil commemorating the victims of the doomed flight escalated into an angry demonstration following the government admission, according to Iran’s semiofficial FARS News Agency. University graduates migrating to Canada were among those who perished in the crash.
FARS reported that Iranian police dispersed students who entered and blocked main roads.
Their anger was fueled in large part by the nation’s armed forces claim that it targeted the passenger plane unintentionally. It attributed the crash to radar activity and fear of US action.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake. My thoughts and prayers go to all the mourning families,” President Hassan Rouhani said.
After the missile operation in Iraq, US military flights around Iranian borders increased and Iranian military officials reported seeing aerial targets coming toward strategic centers, according to a statement by Iranian armed forces headquarters.
“The aircraft came close to a sensitive IRGC military center at an altitude and flight condition that resembled hostile targeting. Under these circumstances, the aircraft was unintentionally hit, which unfortunately resulted in death of the many Iranian and foreign nationals,” the statement reads.
The victims include 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians, 10 Swedes, four Afghans, three Germans and three British nationals.
“Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted.
People stand near the wreckage after a Ukrainian plane carrying 176 passengers crashed near Imam Khomeini airport.
The commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force said he had requested all commercial flights in Iran be grounded until tensions cooled off.
But the Armed Forces and government and aviation authorities chose not to do so, Brigadier-General Amir-Ali Hajizadeh said at a news conference.
Hajizadeh said the plane was misidentified as a cruise missile by an air defense operator.
The operator was unable to contact the central air defense command to confirm it. He had 10 seconds to choose between shooting it down or not, Hajizadeh said.
Hajizadeh accepted responsibility, saying that once it became clear what had happened, he thought: “I wish I was dead.”
Those responsible will be prosecuted
The Ukrainian General Prosecutor’s office said in a statement it was now investigating the incident as a possible case of “willful killing and aircraft destruction.”
The downing of the plane was being handled as a case of “violation of traffic safety rules” and “operation of air transport resulting in death” but prosecutors said Iran’s admission changed the scope to “liability for the willful killing of two or more people and the destruction of the aircraft,” the statement said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called Iran’s admission a “step in the right direction” via Twitter.
“I insist on immediately completing identification of the bodies and their return to Ukraine,” Zelensky wrote after a call with Rouhani.
“The perpetrators must be held accountable. We look forward to further legal and technical cooperation,” added Zelensky, who had earlier made a call for Iran to pay compensation.
Rouhani apologized to the Ukrainian people and promised to hold those responsible “accountable,” according to the readout of the conversation.
“The head of the Islamic Republic of Iran fully acknowledges that the tragedy was due to the erroneous actions of the military of this state, ” according to the readout.
Rouhani in a statement released by his office earlier Saturday echoed those sentiments.
“Further investigation is needed to identify all the causes and roots of this tragedy and prosecute the perpetrators of this unforgivable mistake and inform the honorable people of Iran and the families of the victims about it,” Rouhani said.
“It is also necessary to adopt the required arrangements and measures to address the weaknesses of the country’s defense systems to make sure such a disaster is never repeated,” he added.