Iran’s supreme leader has offered condolences and called for an investigation after his country’s armed forces acknowledged that they accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed his “deep sympathy” to the families of the 176 victims, and called on the armed forces to “pursue probable shortcomings and guilt in the painful incident”.
Iran shot down the passenger plane after it took off from Tehran, amid heightened tensions stemming from the US air strike that killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani.
The military said it mistook the plane for a hostile target after launching a ballistic missile attack on two bases housing US troops in Iraq.
The Iranian government had previously repeatedly denied Western accusations that it was responsible.
All on board the passenger plane were killed. No-one was wounded in the missile attack on the bases.
A military statement carried by Iranian state media said the plane was shot down after it turned towards a “sensitive military centre” of the Revolutionary Guard.
An Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander said his unit accepts “full responsibility” over the incident.
In an address broadcast by state TV, Gen Amir Ali Hajizadeh said that when he learned about the downing of the plane, “I wished I were dead”.
Ukraine’s president said Iran must take further steps, including an official apology, following the admission.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy said his country expects “assurances” from Iran of a “full and open investigation, bringing the perpetrators to justice”.
He added that Ukraine also expects the “paying of compensation” and “official apologies through diplomatic channels”.
He expressed hope for the continuation of the crash investigation without delay. A team of Ukrainian investigators is already in Iran.
“Our 45 specialists should get full access and co-operation to establish justice,” he said.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said following Iran’s admission that his focus remains on seeking justice for the families of those who died.
A total of 57 Canadians were killed in the crash.
Mr Trudeau issued a statement on Saturday saying Canada is concentrating on “closure, accountability, transparency and justice for the families and loved ones of the victims”.
He called the incident a national tragedy and said “all Canadians are mourning together”.
He said Canada will continue to work with partners around the world to ensure a complete and thorough investigation, and the Canadian government expects full co-operation from Iranian authorities.
Iran’s acknowledgement of responsibility for the crash was likely to inflame public sentiment against authorities after Iranians had rallied around their leaders after Gen Soleimani’s killing.
The general was seen as a national icon, and hundreds of thousands of people 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 rise in petrol prices.
The shooting down of the plane and the lack of transparency around it, along with the restrained response to the killing of Soleimani, could reignite anger within Iran at the country’s leadership.
On Saturday night, hundreds gathered at universities in Tehran to protest against the government’s late acknowledgement of the plane being shot down.
They demanded officials involved in the missile attack be removed from their positions and put on trial. Police broke up the demonstrations.
Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani blamed the tragedy on “threats and bullying” by the US after the killing of Gen 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.”
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.
The head of the airline said he was sure all along that that the company was not at fault.
Evgeniy Dikhne said on Facebook: “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. They were our best guys and girls. The best.”
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.