Iranians have taken to the streets to denounce their rulers after the country’s military admitted shooting down a Ukrainian airliner by mistake following days of denials.
Protesters rallied in Tehran and other cities for a second day on Sunday, defying riot police who were deployed in the capital after reportedly firing tear gas at demonstrators who chanted anti-government slogans on Saturday.
They denounced what they called government lies and incompetence after Iranian officials belatedly acknowledged shooting down the Ukrainian airliner near Tehran airport last Wednesday, killing all 176 people on board.
Most of the dead were Iranians and Canadian citizens of Iranian origin flying to Canada via Kiev.
Marchers in Tehran chanted “Death to the dictator” in fury at Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The country’s moderate Etemad newspaper ran a headline urging those responsible for the disaster to “apologise and resign”, Reuters reported.
Iran’s military said it had been on “high alert” early on Wednesday after firing ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases used by US troops in response to a US drone attack that killed Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani on January 3rd. Washington and Iran are also at loggerheads over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In response to the demonstrations, US president Donald Trump tweeted in Farsi and English: “To the brave, long-suffering people of Iran: I’ve stood with you since the beginning of my presidency, and my administration will continue to stand with you. We are following your protests closely, and are inspired by your courage.”
Show of dissent
Hundreds of Iranians are believed to have been killed last November in a police crackdown on protests when rallies against a rise in gasoline prices spiralled into a significant show of dissent against the country’s rulers.
“To the leaders of Iran - do not kill your protesters,” Mr Trump tweeted on Sunday.
“Thousands have already been killed or imprisoned by you, and the world is watching. More importantly, the USA is watching. Turn your internet back on and let reporters roam free! Stop the killing of your great Iranian people!”
Rob Macaire, Britain’s ambassador to Tehran, was briefly detained on Saturday when a vigil for the air disaster victims turned into a political rally.
“The arrest of our ambassador in Tehran without grounds or explanation is a flagrant violation of international law,” said British foreign secretary Dominic Raab. “The Iranian government is at a crossroads moment. It can continue its march towards pariah status, with all the political and economic isolation that entails, or take steps to de-escalate tensions and engage in a diplomatic path forwards.”
Tension between Washington and Tehran have surged since the US blamed Iranian-backed militia last month for a rocket attack on a base in Iraq that killed a US contractor.
Iraqi officials said on Sunday that four members of the country’s military had been hurt in a missile strike targeting an air base near Baghdad that hosts US trainers. It was not immediately clear who fired the rockets.
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau was expected in Edmonton, Alberta, on Sunday to address a memorial service for victims of the air disaster.
He said on Saturday: “Shooting down a civilian aircraft is horrific. Iran must take full responsibility...Canada will not rest until we get the accountability, justice and closure that the families deserve.”
He urged Iran to compensate victims’ relatives, and allow a full and open international investigation.
Mr Trudeau spoke to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani hours after he reversed vehement denials by Iranian officials and admitted that his country had brought down the Boeing 737 operated by Ukraine International Airlines.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake... Investigations continue to identify and prosecute this great tragedy and unforgivable mistake,” Mr Rouhani said.
Gen Amirali Hajizadeh, the head of the aerospace division of Iran’s powerful Republican Guards, said: “The disaster occurred after a communications problem, but that is no justification and is unforgiveable... I would prefer to die rather than witness such an incident.”
While expressing “profound regrets, apologies and condolences” over the air disaster, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif said it had been caused by “human error at a time of crisis caused by US adventurism”.
During three days of strenuous denials, senior Iranian officials claimed it was “scientifically impossible” for a missile to have brought down the aircraft, and said allegations of culpability were part of US’s “psychological warfare” against Tehran.
The office of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Mr Rouhani had assured him that “everyone involved in the disaster would be held accountable”, and that Ukrainian investigators would receive “all the necessary support” from Tehran.
Eleven Ukrainians died in the disaster, including the nine crew members on the Ukraine International Airlines flight. Mr Zelenskiy said he hoped their bodies would be repatriated by January 19th.
The Ukrainian president announced an agreement with French counterpart Emmanuel Macron that specialists from both countries would analyse the aircraft’s flight recorders; reports from Iran said the “black boxes” would be sent to France.