Iran has admitted that its military made an “unforgivable mistake” in unintentionally shooting 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 early on Saturday via state TV blamed “human error” for the downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 on Wednesday in the tense aftermath of strikes on US targets. It was followed by an apology from Iran’s president.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy responded on Saturday morning that Iran must make an official apology and agree to full investigation and compensation, as well as co-operating with Ukraine’s own investigators. “Our 45 professionals should have full access and co-operation to establish justice,” a statement from the presidency said.
Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, 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 plane was mistaken for a hostile target after it turned towards a sensitive military centre of the Revolutionary Guard, the military statement carried on the official IRNA news agency 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 an unintentional way, the flight was hit.”
The military 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, it said.
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 acknowledgment of responsibility was likely to renew questions of why authorities did not shut down the country’s main international airport and its airspace after launching ballistic missile attacks when they feared US reprisals.
It also undermines the credibility of information provided by senior Iranian officials so far. As recently as Friday, Ali Abedzadeh, the head of the national aviation department, told reporters with certainty that a missile had not caused the crash, while on Thursday, cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei dismissed reports of a missile, saying they rub salt on a painful wound for families of the victims.