‘Human error’ blamed as admission comes after initial denials were contradicted by western allies’ intelligence
Iran has admitted that its military “unintentionally” shot down a Ukrainian jetliner, killing all 176 people onboard, after days of rejecting western intelligence reports that pointed to Tehran being responsible.
A military statement came on Saturday morning via state TV, with “human error” blamed for the downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 on Wednesday. It was followed by an apology from Iran’s president.
The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, wrote on Saturday: “The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake. “My thoughts and prayers go to all the mourning families. I offer my sincerest condolences.”
The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake.
My thoughts and prayers go to all the mourning families. I offer my sincerest condolences. https://t.co/4dkePxupzm
— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) January 11, 2020
The Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, wrote: “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.”
The plane was mistaken for a hostile target after it turned towards a sensitive military centre of the Revolutionary Guard, the statement said.
“The military was at its highest level of readiness” amid the heightened tensions with the US, it said, adding: “In such a condition, because of human error and in a unintentional way, the flight was hit.”
It apologised for the disaster and said it would upgrade its systems to prevent such mistakes in the future. The responsible parties would be referred to a judicial department within the military and held accountable, the military said.
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, went down on the outskirts of Tehran during takeoff a few hours after Iran had launched a barrage of missiles at US forces in Iraq in the early hours of Wednesday.
The strikes on two US bases were retaliation for the US drone strike that killed the powerful Quds Force leader Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad on 3 January – the culmination of a recent series of tit-for-tat attacks that threatened to push Washington and Tehran into war.
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 Suleimani’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 vast majority of the plane victims were Iranians or Iranian-Canadians, and the crash came a few weeks after authorities quashed nationwide protests ignited by a hike in gasoline prices.
“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.”
Iran had denied for several days that a missile downed the aircraft and instead blamed mechanical malfunction.
The head of Iran’s civil aviation organisation had said it was “scientifically impossible” that a missile could have hit the Ukrainian plane. Such rumours were “illogical”, Ali Abedzadeh told state-run media. In London, Iran’s ambassador to the UK, Hamid Baeidinejad, accused the west and the UK of “politicising” the inquiry.
Western security officials began briefing on Thursday afternoon that intelligence suggested the plane had been accidentally shot down by two surface-to-air missles fired by the Iranian military.
A preliminary report released by Iran’s civil aviation authority the day after the crash found that the pilots of the doomed plane did not make radio contact but had attempted to turn back to the airport when the plane went down.
Air crash experts have raised serious concerns since the plane went down over the handling of the crash site, such as the removal of debris, sparking fears that Tehran has sought to eliminate evidence from the area.
Iran has invited investigators from Canada, Ukraine and Boeing to see the accident site on the outskirts of Tehran and said it would also welcome representatives of other countries whose citizens died.
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 63 Canadians ,11 Ukrainians and three Britons.
The Ukrainian foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, said on Friday that Kyiv had been given access to the flight recorders and planned to start analysing their content.