By Agence France-Presse
TEHRAN (AFP) – Iran said on Saturday its armed forces “unintentionally” shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet that crashed after taking off from Tehran, killing all 176 people aboard.
President Hassan Rouhani said a military investigation had found “missiles fired due to human error” brought down the Boeing 737 on Wednesday, calling it an “unforgivable mistake.”
The about-turn came after officials in Iran had categorically denied Western claims that the Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) airliner had been struck by a missile in a catastrophic error.
The plane, which had been bound for Kiev, slammed into a field shortly after taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport before dawn on Wednesday.
It came only hours after Iran’s armed forces launched a wave of missiles at bases hosting American forces in Iraq in response to the killing of Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s top generals, in a US drone strike.
Iran had come under mounting pressure to allow a “credible” investigation after video footage emerged appearing to show the plane being hit by a fast-moving object before a flash appears.
The Ukrainian and Canadian leaders called for accountability after Iran’s admission.
The armed forces were first to acknowledge the error, saying the Boeing 737 had been mistaken for a “hostile plane” at a time when enemy threats were at the highest level.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake,” Rouhani said on Twitter.
“Armed Forces’ 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.”
In a statement posted on the government’s website, Rouhani said Iran’s armed forces had been on alert for possible attacks by the Americans after the “martyrdom” of Soleimani.
“Iran is very much saddened by this catastrophic mistake and I, on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran, express my deep condolences to the families of victims of this painful catastrophe,” he said.
Rouhani added he had ordered “all relevant bodies to take all necessary actions (to ensure) compensation” to the families of those killed.
“This painful incident is not an issue that can be overcome easily.”
He said “the perpetrators of this unforgivable mistake will be prosecuted.”
“It is necessary to take necessary steps and measures to remove the weak points of the country’s defence systems so that such a catastrophe is never repeated again.”
The majority of passengers on UIA Flight PS752 were dual national Iranian-Canadians but also included Ukrainians, Afghans, Britons and Swedes.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky demanded Saturday that Iran punish those responsible for the downing of the plane and pay compensation.
“We expect Iran… to bring the guilty to the courts,” the Ukrainian leader wrote on Facebook.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said closure and accountability were needed in the wake of the incident.
Trudeau also demanded “transparency, and justice for the families and loved ones of the victims”.
“This is a national tragedy, and all Canadians are mourning together,” his office said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the United States piled new sanctions on Iran’s already crippled economy Friday. The sanctions marked the latest salvo in a US-Iranian confrontation that risked sliding into war a week ago with the deadly US drone attack on General Qasem Soleimani, who was by some measures the second most influential person in Iran.
In response, Iran fired volleys of ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases housing US troops, without causing casualties.
While President Donald Trump said he would not respond further militarily, Washington is intent on maintaining pressure.
The sanctions mean “we will cut off billions of dollars of support to the Iranian regime,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters at the White House.
The measures targeting Iran’s steel industry and eight state officials came on top of massive sanctions already aimed at bringing the country’s economy to its knees.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that sanctions so far “have deprived the regime of billions in revenue.”
“Oil revenues (are) down by 80 percent and Iran cannot access roughly 90 percent of its foreign policy reserves,” he said. “As long as Iran’s outlaw ways continue we will continue to impose sanctions.”
Among the senior Iranian officials targeted in the new measures were Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, the Iranian armed forces deputy chief of staff and Gholamreza Soleimani, the head of the Basij militia, a volunteer force loyal to the regime.
Seventeen Iranian metals producers and mining companies were listed.
The sanctions also included a network of three entities that are based in China and the Seychelles as well as a vessel “involved in the purchase, sale, and transfer of Iranian metals products,” the Treasury said in a statement.
READ MORE: US piles on the sanctions pain against Iran