Iran arrests Ukraine plane, vows to ‘punish’ those responsible.
Iran’s judiciary says arrests have been made over the accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian commercial jet that killed all 176 passengers on board last Wednesday.
The country’s president, Hassan Rouhani, also called for a special court to be established to investigate the downing of the aircraft, which has triggered protests, rare apologies from the government and a wave of resignations from state-run media outlets.
Iranian state media quoted judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili on Thursday morning saying that “extensive investigations have taken place and some individuals are arrested”. He did not name anyone or say how many had been held.
Officials in the country had initially insisted the aircraft had suffered a technical fault and crashed, but admitted it had been shot down on Saturday morning after foreign investigators had arrived in the country and images had emerged on social media showing missile debris near the crash site. Western intelligence agencies had also assessed that the Boeing 737-800 was likely shot down.
“The judiciary should form a special court with a ranking judge and dozens of experts,” Rouhani said in a televised speech in Iran on Tuesday. “This is not an ordinary case. The entire the world will be watching this court.”
Rouhani called the incident “a painful and unforgivable” mistake and promised that his administration would pursue the case “by all means”.
“The responsibility falls on more than just one person,” he said, adding that those found culpable “should be punished”.
He added: “There are others, too, and I want that this issue is expressed honestly,” without elaborating further. He called the government’s admission of responsibility for the disaster “a good first step”.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the hardline military organisation set up to defend the Islamist regime, has taken responsibility for the incident, which occurred around five hours after Iranian missiles were fired at US forces stationed in Iraq and while its forces were on high alert for reprisals.
The Guards’ aerospace chief, Ali Hajizadeh, said over the weekend that a missile operator had been told that the US had fired back at Iranian territory and mistook the plane for a cruise missile. He was unable to contact his superiors to ask if he should fire at the target and “made the bad choice”, Hajizadeh said.
The overt and at times emotional claims of responsibility from what is usually a secretive organisation is unusual but “they had no choice,” said Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, a research fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute.
“The evidence was clear and others had the evidence,” she said. “They have tried to play the card of being seen as transparent and cooperative.”
Hajizadeh had said his organisation asked for the airspace over Tehran to be closed before the accident but that “our dear brothers [in the government] didn’t follow up the issue for certain considerations”.
But Bassiri said there had nonetheless been unusually little public sniping between competing factions and institutions inside the Iranian government over the incident. “Where normally you would see tensions and criticisms within different centres of power, you haven’t seen that in the last few days,” she said. “There has been a focus on unity.”
The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians – including many Iranians with dual citizenship – and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. There were four Britons on board and 15 children among the passengers, including an infant.
Iran shot down the plane when it was braced for possible US retaliation over a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing US troops in Iraq. No one was hurt in that attack, which was carried out to avenge the killing of Revolutionary Guards leader, Qassem Suleimani, in an American airstrike in Baghdad.
The downing and the lack of transparency around it has reignited anger in Iran at the country’s leadership, with protesters taking to the streets. Videos and witness accounts appeared to show security forces firing live ammunition and teargas to disperse protests.