Ukraine Caught In The Middle
Iran's Revolutionary Guard has acknowledged that it accidentally shot down the Ukrainian jetliner that crashed earlier this week, killing all 176 aboard, after the government had repeatedly denied Western accusations that it was responsible.
The plane was shot down early Wednesday, hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing US troops in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an American airstrike in Baghdad.
No one was wounded in the attack on the bases.
A military statement carried by state media said the plane was mistaken for a "hostile target." The military was at its "highest level of readiness," it said, amid the heightened tensions with the United States.
"In such a condition, because of human error and in a unintentional way, the flight was hit," the military said. It apologised and said it would upgrade its systems to prevent future tragedies.
Those responsible for the strike on the plane would be prosecuted, the statement added.
Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Guard's aerospace division, later said his unit accepts "full responsibility" for the shootdown. In an address broadcast by state TV, he said that when he learned about the downing of the plane, "I wished I were dead."
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, expressed his "deep sympathy" to the families of the victims and called on the armed forces to "pursue probable shortcomings and guilt in the painful incident."
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy issued a statement saying the crash investigation should continue and the "perpetrators" should be brought to justice.
He said Iran should compensate victims' families, and he requested "official apologies through diplomatic channels."
The jetliner, a Boeing 737 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines, went down on the outskirts of Tehran shortly after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport.
The majority of the plane crash victims were Iranians or Iranian-Canadians. Iranian officials had repeatedly ruled out a missile strike, dismissing such allegations as Western propaganda that officials said was offensive to the victims.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani blamed the shootdown of the plane in part on "threats and bullying" by the US after the killing of Soleimani. He expressed condolences to families of the victims, and he called for a "full investigation" and the prosecution of those responsible.
The US and Canada, citing intelligence, said they believed Iran shot down the aircraft with a surface-to-air missile, a conclusion supported by videos.
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 and 11 Ukrainians.
Iran's acknowledgement of responsibility was likely to renew questions of why authorities did not shut down the country's main international airport and its airspace after the ballistic missile attack, when they feared US reprisals.
It also undermines the credibility of information provided by senior Iranian officials. As recently as Friday, Ali Abedzadeh, the head of the national aviation department, had told reporters "with certainty" that a missile had not caused the crash.
The military statement, issued by the Joint Chiefs of the Armed Forces, said Guard officials had been ordered to "provide a detailed explanation" to the public.
The semi-official Fars news agency reported that the supreme leader on Friday morning had ordered top security officials to review the crash and announce the results.