Iran denied a “cover-up” Monday after taking days to reveal an airliner was accidentally shot down last week, a disaster that sparked demonstrations and calls for a fully transparent investigation.
The Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 was brought down by a missile shortly after taking off Wednesday from Tehran, killing all 176 passengers and crew on board.
The Kiev-bound plane was knocked out of the sky hours after Tehran had launched a wave of missiles at U.S. troops in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of a top Iranian general.
Anticipating a possible military response from the U.S., Iran’s air defenses were on high alert and likely mistook the airliner for a hostile military aircraft.
Iran initially denied Western claims based on U.S. intelligence that the airliner had been struck by a missile before acknowledging it on Saturday.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake,” President Hassan Rhouhani wrote on Twitter.
“My thoughts and prayers go to all the mourning families. I offer my sincerest condolences.”
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted out a heart-break emoji and offered “profound regrets, apologies, and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations.”
But the government’s handling of the matter saw a memorial at a Tehran university turn into a demonstration on Saturday evening before it was dispersed by police.
Iranian authorities denied police fired at protesters after videos on social media captured gunshots and pools of blood on the ground. Protests raged on in Iran for a third day after it acknowledged shooting down a passenger plane by accident https://t.co/IvUDmdkWMo pic.twitter.com/qoAxuocEoD
— Reuters (@Reuters) January 13, 2020
Demonstrations were also held in the capital on Sunday night, according to unverified videos shared online, but it was difficult to assess how many people attended.
“I don’t know why they didn’t cancel the flights that night,” a Tehrani named Hamid told AFP.
Protesters chanted “Death to dictator” and against the Revolutionary Guards, Fars news agency said, a rare move for a country where media usually refer to demonstrators as “rioters” and refrain from publishing such slogans.
Internet monitor NetBlocks reported a drop in connectivity Monday at Tehran’s Sharif University ahead of any new demonstrations.
“In these sorrowful days, many criticisms were directed at relevant officials and authorities,” said government spokesman Ali Rabiei.
“Some officials were even accused of lying and a cover-up but, in all honesty, that was not the case.”
The spokesman said all details provided by officials before Saturday’s revelation had been based on the information they had.
“All of those who expressed opinions on those days, at the peak of America’s psychological war … did so based on existing information at the time.”
The shooting down of the airliner is the most recent in a series of similar tragedies that have occurred in recent decades.
In 2014, Russian-backed separatists accidentally shot down a Malaysian airlines plane over Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers.
In 1988, A U.S. naval ship downed an Iranian passenger plane over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 passengers. The U.S. government has never formally apologized for the incident.
Germany called on Iran to allow people to show their grief and “protest peacefully and freely.”
Its foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr described as “very worrying” videos reportedly showing security forces cracking down on demonstrators.
Tehran’s police chief said officers had been ordered to show “restraint” after Sunday night’s gathering at iconic Azadi Square south of the city center.
“The police treated the people who had gathered with patience and tolerance,” said General Hossein Rahimi.
“The police did not shoot at the gatherings at all because a restraint order (had been issued) for police in the capital.”
The demonstrations come after Iranian officials were accused by rights groups of orchestrating a harsh crackdown on major protests that broke out across the country in November.
U.S. officials have said up to 1,000 protesters were killed, though that figure has not been independently verified.
Rouhani promised a “thorough investigation” into the disaster in a phone call with Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, his office said.
The majority of those on Flight PS752 were Iranians and Canadians, including dual nationals. Others were Ukrainians, Afghans, Britons, seven Swedes, and 10 people who resided in the Scandinavian country.
“We must strive to ensure that such a shocking incident is not repeated anywhere in the world,” Rouhani said.
The president noted the disaster occurred at a time of heightened tensions in the region after a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad on January 3.
“We must all join hands to bring security back to the region and allow peace to prevail.”
‘Justice and Accountability’
Iran has come under mounting international pressure to ensure its investigation into the tragedy is full and transparent.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a memorial event in Edmonton for the 57 Canadians who lost their lives that “this tragedy struck our Iranian-Canadian community.”
“We want to assure all families and all Canadians that we will not rest until there are answers,” the Canadian leader said. “We will not rest until there is justice and accountability.”
Iran has invited experts from Canada, France, Ukraine, and the United States to take part in the probe.
Despite footage from the site of disaster appearing to show bulldozers at work, the Revolutionary Guards’ top commander denied evidence had been tampered with.
“We didn’t touch anything,” said Major General Hossein Salami.
“We didn’t move the wreckage of the aircraft, we didn’t change the scene, we didn’t move the air defense system, and we didn’t (alter) the radar readings.”
On the diplomatic front, Britain summoned Iran’s ambassador to London after its Tehran envoy was briefly arrested for allegedly attending the demonstration.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson‘s spokesman said Britain would convey its “strong objections” over Rob Macaire’s arrest, calling it an “unacceptable breach” of diplomatic protocol.