TEHRAN: 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 a 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 courts,” the Ukrainian leader wrote on Facebook, calling also for the “payment of compensation.”
Zelensky is set to hold a telephone call with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani on Saturday.
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 acknowledgement 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’s President Hassan Rouhani blamed the tragedy on “threats and bullying” by the United States after the killing of Soleimani. He expressed condolences to families of the victims, and he called for a “full investigation” and the prosecution of those responsible.
“A sad day,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted. “Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster. Our profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations.”
A sad day. Preliminary conclusions of internal investigation by Armed Forces:
Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster
Our profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) January 11, 2020
The jetliner, a Boeing 737 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines, went down on the outskirts of Tehran shortly after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport.
Iran had denied for several days that a missile caused the crash. But then the US and Canada, citing intelligence, said they believed Iran shot down the aircraft with a surface-to-air missile, a conclusion supported by videos of the incident.
The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, at least 57 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. The Canadian government had earlier lowered the nation’s death toll from 63.
“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.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Saturday that the accidental shooting down of the jet in Iran reinforced the importance of de-escalating tensions in the Middle East.
"Iran’s admission that Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was shot down by mistake by its own armed forces is an important first step," Johnson said in a statement.
Three British nationals were among the 176 people killed in Wednesday's crash.
"We now need a comprehensive, transparent and independent international investigation and the repatriation of those who died. The UK will work closely with Canada, Ukraine and our other international partners affected by this accident to ensure this happens," Johnson said.
"We can all see very clearly that further conflict will only lead to more loss and tragedy. It is vital that all leaders now pursue a diplomatic way forward."