Ukraine Plane Shot Down Because of Human Error, Iran Says: Live Updates

After maintaining for days that there was no evidence that one of its missiles had struck a Boeing 737-800 minutes after it took off from Tehran on Wednesday with 176 people on board, Iran admitted early on Saturday that its military had shot down the passenger jet by mistake.

The military blamed human error. In a statement, it said Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 had taken a sharp, unexpected turn that brought it near a sensitive military base.

In post on Twitter, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohamad Javad Zarif, apologized but appeared to also blame American “adventurism” for the tragedy, writing: “Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster.”

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had been informed about the accidental shooting down, said information should be publicly announced after a meeting of Iran’s top security body, the semiofficial Fars news agency said on Twitter.

President Hassan Rouhani said on Twitter that Iran “deeply regrets this disastrous mistake.”

In a statement cited by the semiofficial Fars News Agency, the president offered condolences to the victims’ families and said that “the terrible catastrophe should be thoroughly investigated.”

He added that those responsible for “this unforgivable mistake” would be identified and “prosecuted.”

But he also said that in an environment of military threats and terror by the United States’ “aggressive” government against the people of Iran, and facing the possibility of American military strikes on Iran, the armed forces made a “human mistake and misfired” and “it led to a big catastrophe and innocent people were killed.”

“This painful incident is not something we can easily overcome,” he added, saying that was imperative to is correct any shortcomings in the country’s defense mechanism and ensure such a tragedy would not happen again.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, in his first reaction to Iran’s announcement, said Kyiv would “insist on a full admission of guilt” by Tehran.

“We expect Iran to assure its readiness for a full and open investigation, to bring those responsible to justice, to return the bodies of the victims, to pay compensation, and to make official apologies through diplomatic channels,” Mr. Zelensky said in a post on his Facebook page. “We hope that the investigation will continue without artificial delays and obstacles.”

Mr. Zelensky had come under domestic criticism this week for refusing to publicly blame Iran for the disaster even as the United States, Canada and Britain did.

Iran’s announcement on Saturday vindicated Mr. Zelensky’s cautious approach, said Ivan Yakovina, a columnist for the Kyiv-based magazine Novoye Vremya. “If there had been threats from Ukraine, then I believe Iran wouldn’t have allowed the specialists to do their jobs and generally would have refused to admit guilt,” he said.

Later, the office of the Ukrainian president posted on Facebook photos of what it said was shrapnel damage on the plane wreckage and a Canadian man’s passport showing piercings about half an inch in diameter.

Mr. Zelensky’s office said on Saturday that Iran had cooperated in Ukraine’s investigation of the crash and that Ukraine’s investigators had “received all of the necessary information from the beginning.”

That contrasted with remarks by the head of the Ukrainian investigation, Oleksiy Danilov, who said on Saturday that Iran had been forced to let in the Ukrainian investigators because the International Civil Aviation Organization would have closed off its airspace.

“As we saw it, Iran had to face the reality that there’s no way they’ll get out of this,” he said.

Mr. Danilov said Iranian authorities had also complicated the investigation by scraping the wreckage into piles rather than photographing and mapping the coordinates. In general, he said, they had acted “inappropriately.”

“When a catastrophe happens, everything is supposed to stay in its place.” Mr. Danilov said. “Every element is described, every element is photographed, every element is fixed in terms of its location and coordinates. To our great regret, this was not done.”

At some point, he said, Iranian officials realized there was no way to hide the facts from Ukraine, whose investigators found shrapnel marks in wreckage.

Iranian officials did not immediately respond to the accusations.

Iranians expressed fury toward their government after Tehran’s admission, with thousands pouring into main squares around the city on Saturday afternoon. Gatherings organized on social media to mourn the victims of the crash swiftly turned into angry protests against the government’s actions.

“Death to liars!” and “Death to the dictator!” people chanted, videos shared on social media showed. “You have no shame,” shouted several young men, and the crowd joined in a chorus, another showed. People carried candles and placed flowers at the gates of the universities and public squares.

Even conservatives and supporters of the government accused the authorities of initially misleading the public about what had brought down the plane, whose passengers included many young Iranians on their way to Canada for graduate study.

The semiofficial Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, posted a harsh commentary condemning Iran’s leaders, saying “their shortcomings have made this tragedy twice as bitter.”

“It is pivotal that those who were hiding the truth from the public for the past 72 hours be held accountable, we cannot let this go,” it read.

“Individuals, media, political and military officials who commented in the past 72 hours must be investigated. If they knew of the truth and were deliberately speaking falsehood or for any reason were trying to hide it, they must be prosecuted, no matter what post they hold.”

Siamak Ghaesmi, a Tehran-based economist, addressed the country’s leaders in an Instagram post: “I don’t know what to do with my rage and grief. I’m thinking of all the ‘human errors’ in these years that were never revealed because there was no international pressure. I’m thinking of the little trust left that was shattered. I’m thinking of the innocent lives lost because of confronting and being stubborn with the world. What have you done with us?”

Mohamad Saeed Ahadian, a conservative analyst in Iran, said on Twitter, “There are two major problems with the Ukrainian Airlines issue. One is firing at an airplane and two is firing at the public’s trust. The first can be justified but the latter is a mistake with absolutely no justification.”

Some social media posts made use of the term “harsh revenge,” which Iran’s leaders had promised to inflict on the United States for the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a top Revolutionary Guards commander; an Iraqi militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis; and others as they left the airport in Baghdad. The general’s killing sent shock waves through the Middle East and led to calls for revenge in Iran, as well as a vote by Iraq’s Parliament to oust American troops from that country.

Mojtaba Fathi, an Iranian journalist, wrote on Twitter, “They were supposed to take their harsh revenge against America, not the people.”

A commander of the aerospace division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iran, Amirali Hajizadeh, said on Saturday that he accepted responsibility for the plane’s downing minutes after takeoff in Tehran, according to Iranian state TV.

In a televised address, he gave more details about the sequence of events that he said had led up to the disaster. He said it had been misidentified as a cruise missile, and was shot down with a short-range missile that exploded near the plane.

He also said that the Iranian missile operator had acted independently because of “jamming.”

“I wish I was dead,” Mr. Hajizadeh was quoted as saying by local news outlets. “I accept all responsibility for this incident.”

He said that whatever decision the Iranian authorities made, “I will accept with the arms open.”

The downing came hours after Iran had fired a barrage of missiles at two American air bases in neighboring Iraq, in retaliation for an American drone strike that killed a top Iranian general, an Iraqi militia leader and others in Baghdad.

Asked during his address why Iranian airspace was not shut to commercial air traffic amid the attacks, Mr. Hajizadeh had no clear answer.

Iran’s decision not to shut down its airspace on Wednesday morning, shortly after it struck American positions in Iraq, was “absolutely irresponsible,” the Ukrainian airline’s vice president said.

“When you act in war, then you act however you wish,” Ihor Sosnovskiy, the Ukraine International Airlines executive, said at a news conference on Saturday. “But there must be protection around ordinary people. If they are shooting somewhere from somewhere, they are obliged to close the airport.”

Yevhen Dykhne, the airline’s president, said the Iranians had provided no information about possible risks before the plane’s takeoff.

French specialists will help decode the black boxes of the Ukrainian plane that crashed in Iran, the presidents of the two countries said on Saturday.

President Emmanuel Macron of France told his Ukrainian counterpart in a telephone call that France had also started a formal procedure to begin an international investigation. Macron agreed to visit Kyiv as well.

International pressure had been building on Iran to take responsibility. American and allied officials had said that all intelligence assessments indicated that surface-to-air missiles fired by Iranian military forces had shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752.

Hours after the crash, Ukraine International Airlines officials had consistently ruled out pilot error or mechanical problems as the cause of the crash. They had said the Boeing 737-800, which was less than four years old, was helmed by some of the airline’s most experienced crew.

“We never thought for a second that our crew and our plane could have been the reason for this terrible, horrific aviation catastrophe,” the airline’s president, Yevhenii Dykhne, said in a Facebook post on Saturday after Iran’s admission. “These were our best young men and women. The best.”

In Kyiv on Saturday, officials from Ukraine International Airlines pushed back forcefully on the Iranian government’s assertion, even as it acknowledged shooting down the plane, that the pilots shared blame for flying off route. Iran should take full responsibility, they said.

“Even in the statement of Iran there is a hint that our crew was acting independently, or that it could act differently,” the airline’s director, Yevhenii Dykhne,said. “Unfortunately, we have to acknowledge that our plane was in the wrong place at the wrong time. This could have been any plane.”

The crew received had no warning before leaving Tehran, the officials said. The plane took off as Ukrainian flights from Iran had dozens of times before, and followed the same departure routes as airliners leaving that night, Igor Sosnovsky, the airline’s vice president for flight operations, told journalists. “There was no deviation from any routes that some are hinting at,” he added.

The crew maintained normal radio contact with the tower in Tehran, he said, and followed a standard departure procedure for the airport. After reaching an elevation of 6,000 feet, the pilots were instructed to make a slight northerly turn. In the last communication, he said, one pilot simply read back this instruction from the tower, saying, “Turn and climb.”

Addressing criticism that the airline should not have sent a plane to Iran at all, in light of tensions in the region, the officials said it was Iran’s responsibility to close airspace if it intended to fire missiles.

There was also veiled criticism of the Iranian investigation, which the Ukrainians have been reluctant to discuss while their team is on the ground in Iran. Mr. Dykhne, the airline director, said, “we have noticed some oddities and irregularities.”

There was no immediate reaction from the United States to Iran’s admission, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been the first American official to publicly confirm the intelligence assessments.

“We do believe that it’s likely that the plane was shot down by an Iranian missile,” Mr. Pompeo said at a briefing at the White House announcing new sanctions against Iran on Friday.

President Justin Trudeau of Canada, who has said his country expects to play a big role in Iran’s investigation of the airliner crash that killed 63 Canadians even though the two nations do not have diplomatic ties, said on Saturday that “ accountability” was needed after Iran’s admission, according to a statement from his office.

“Our focus remains closure, accountability, transparency and justice for the families and loved ones of the victims,” the statement said. “This is a national tragedy, and all Canadians are mourning together.

“We will continue working with our partners around the world to ensure a complete and thorough investigation, and the Canadian government expects full cooperation from Iranian authorities.”

The 176 people who died on the flight included 57 Canadians, many of them students or faculty at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. About 27 residents of Edmonton were on the plane.

In Canada, Iranians are comparative newcomers: Most arrived after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Today, by some counts, Canada has the third-largest number of expatriate Iranians in the world and its universities are a top destination for Iranian graduate students.

Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the foreign relations committee in the Russian Senate, said Iran’s admission showed the downing of the plane had been a “tragic incident” and should not lead to further escalation between Iran and the West.

“It was a tragic incident; people cannot be returned,” Mr. Kosachev told the Interfax news agency. “The admission of error, although not immediately, and expression of condolences is sufficient to be accepted. With this, the incident should be closed.”

All sides should “learn lessons” from what happened, he said.

Mr. Kosachev also pushed back on reports that the missile used to strike the plane had been Russian-made. He did not deny the missile’s origin, but rejected any Russian responsibility for what had happened. “At the height of this tragedy,” he said, “it is absolutely immoral.”

American intelligence officials have said that a Russian-made missile system designated SA-15 by NATO and known in Russia as the Tor struck the civilian airliner shortly after takeoff.

The Tor system is a mobile missile launch system, with eight missiles carried on either a tracked vehicle or a truck. The vehicles can operate without relying on other air defense infrastructure.

They carry both a radar to detect targets and a launch system. The low- to medium-altitude missiles were developed by Soviet engineers in the 1970s as a so-called lower-tier air defense weapon.

Russia sold the Tor systems to Iran in 2005 as part of a $1 billion arms deal and over the objection of American diplomats. It has also sold the system to more than a dozen other countries.

A New York Times analysis of flight path information and video of the missile strike determined that the plane stopped transmitting its signal for between 20 seconds and 30 seconds before it was hit.

Civilian airplanes identify themselves with radio signals constantly streaming from a system known as a transponder on the planes, said Ian Petchenik, a spokesman for Flightradar 24, which tracks the signals for flights around the world.

The Tor software relied on radar and visual identification of a plane as well as the identification signals from the transponder, John Cox, an accident investigator and former pilot who is the chief executive of Safety Operating Systems, said. If the identification is incorrect or absent from the plane, Mr. Cox said, the system “will declare it a threat.”

From there, he said, the missile navigates via radar, “and when it gets in proximity to target it explodes,” releasing deadly fragments. A second missile is usually fired immediately after the first.

At that point, the plane, in flames, glided down to its demise.

Reporting was contributed by Farnaz Fassihi, Anton Troianovski, Ian Austen, Andrew E. Kramer, James Glanz, Malachy Browne, Christiaan Triebert and Ivan Nechepurenko.

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