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Iran admits it ‘unintentionally’ shot down Ukrainian airliner, citing ‘human error’

Ukraine International Airlines jet. (PeakPx/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

After days of denials, Iran has admitted that its military “unintentionally” shot down a Ukrainian airliner outside of Tehran on January 8, citing “human error” in the tragedy that claimed 176 lives.

The statement, reported by state TV early on January 11, quoted the military as saying the plane was mistaken for a “hostile target” after it turned toward a “sensitive military center” of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

It added that the military was at its “highest level of readiness” amid raised tensions with the United States.

The statement also said those responsible for the tragedy, which killed all aboard the plane, would “immediately” be brought to justice.

Although admitting its forces shot down the plane, Iran attempted to put some of the blame on the United States, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif saying the incident occurred “at a time of crisis caused by U.S. adventurism.”

“A sad day. Preliminary conclusions of internal investigation by Armed Forces: Human error at time of crisis caused by U.S. adventurism led to disaster,” Zarif wrote on Twitter.

“Our profound regrets, apologies, and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nation.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani on Twitter called the incident a “great tragedy & unforgivable mistake.”

He wrote that the military’s “internal investigation has concluded that regrettably missiles fired due to human error caused the horrific crash of the Ukrainian plane & death of 176 innocent people.”

Until the admission, Tehran had vehemently denied allegations by Western leaders and experts that evidence indicated an Iranian missile had brought down the plane.

The Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) flight was en route to Kyiv from Tehran on January 8 carrying at least 57 Canadians, 82 Iranians, 10 Swedes, 10 Afghans, three Germans, and three Britons.

The Iranian statement came as the West had turned up the heat on Tehran, with the United States saying it was “likely” that an Iranian missile had shot down the craft and vowing to “take appropriate action in response.”

Separately, Canada’s foreign minister on January 10 announced the formation of an international working group of countries to press Iran for a thorough investigation into the crash, which counted 57 Canadians among the dead, a figure revised down from an earlier death toll of 63.

Initial reports blamed a technical malfunction, but doubts were quickly raised as evidence, including videos, appeared to indicate a missile attack.

The air disaster came hours after Iran targeted two Iraqi bases that house U.S. troops with missiles on January 8 in response to a January 3 U.S. air strike that killed Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad.

That led many experts to suspect Iranian antiaircraft batteries mistook the airliner for a U.S. warplane on a retaliatory mission over Tehran.

After those suggestions surfaced, Ali Abedzadeh, head of Iran’s national aviation department, told a news conference that “what is obvious for us, and what we can say with certainty, is that no missile hit the plane,”

“If they [Western leaders] are really sure, they should come and show their findings to the world” in accordance with international standards, he added.

U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo on January 10 said that “we do believe it is likely that that plane was shot down by an Iranian missile,” echoing remarks by Canadian and British officials.

Pompeo said a probe into the incident would continue and that, when it is completed, he was “confident that we and the world will take appropriate action as a response.”

Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said Canada has formed a coordination group with Britain, Ukraine, Sweden, and Afghanistan to help families of victims.