Under pressure, Iran admits it shot down jetliner by mistake

TEHRAN (AP) — Iran yesterday acknowledged that its armed forces “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 on Wednesday, hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing United States (US) troops in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in a US 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 centre” of the Revolutionary Guard. The military was at its “highest level of readiness,” it said, amid the heightened tensions with the US.

“In such a condition, because of human error and in an unintentional way, the flight was hit,” the military said. It apologised and said it would upgrade its systems to prevent future tragedies.

Those responsible for the strike on the plane would be prosecuted, the statement added.

It was unclear whether the plane was shot down by Iran’s conventional forces or the powerful Revolutionary Guard, which answers directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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 crash came just weeks after authorities quashed nationwide protests ignited by a hike in gasoline prices. Iran has been in the grip of a severe economic crisis since US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani blamed the shootdown of the plane in part on “threats and bullying” by the US 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.

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.”

In this January 8 photo, debris is seen from a Ukrainian plane which crashed as authorities work at the scene in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran. PHOTO: AP