"When I found out what had happened, I wanted to die'

Revolutionary Guards commander: Ukrainian jet was mistaken for cruise missile

Head of aerospace force takes ‘full responsibility’ for Iran’s downing of plane that killed 176, says missile operator acted alone because of communications ‘jamming’

Rescue workers search the scene where a Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, on January 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Rescue workers search the scene where a Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, on January 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

The aerospace commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on Saturday accepted full responsibility for the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger jet that killed all 176 people on board.

“I take full responsibility and I will obey whatever decision is taken,” Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh said in remarks broadcast on state television. “When I found out what had happened, I wanted to die. I said, I would rather die rather than be a witness to such an incident.”

Hajizadeh also said the missile exploded next to the Ukraine International Airlines jet before it went down.

“It was a short-range missile that exploded next to the plane. That’s why the plane was able” to continue flying for a while, he said. “It exploded when it hit the ground.”

Commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace division, Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, second right, shows Ayatollah Khamenei an air defense system, May 11, 2014. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Iran’s armed forces said they mistook the passenger plane for a hostile target in the tense aftermath of Iran’s ballistic missile attack on two military bases in Iraq housing US troops. That attack was retaliation for the killing of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, in an American airstrike in Baghdad.

Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Aerospace division, Brigadier General Amir-Ali Hajizadeh

Hajizadeh said Revolutionary Guard forces ringing the capital had beefed up their air defenses and were at the “highest level of readiness,” fearing that the US would retaliate. He said an officer made the “bad decision” to open fire on the plane after mistaking it for a cruise missile.

He said the missile operator opened fire independently because of communications “jamming” and only had 10 seconds to decide whether or not to launch.

A statement from the armed forces expressed “condolences and sympathy” for the families of those who died, giving an assurance that a “repetition of such mistakes would become impossible” through changes in operational procedures.

It stressed the plane was shot down “unintentionally” and said the armed forces would immediately present the “culprit” to the judiciary.

In this handout photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky leads a meeting of the emergency response team on the crash of the Ukraine International Airlines plane in Iran, in Kyiv, Ukraine, January 9, 2020. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

After Tehran admitted to downing the airliner, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was to have a phone conversation with Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani later Saturday, officials said.

Zelensky has scheduled a “telephone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for five p.m. on Saturday,” Ukraine’s presidential press office said in a statement.

Rouhani said that Tehran “deeply regrets this disastrous mistake” and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered the country’s armed forces to address “shortcomings.”

Tehran has now provided Ukrainian experts with enough data including “all the photos, videos and other materials” to show the probe into the downing of the passenger jet “will be carried out objectively and promptly,” Zelensky’s office said.

Zelensky earlier Saturday demanded that Iran provide “total access” to the full inquiry for Ukrainian aviation experts and security officials sent to investigate the crash on the president’s request.

He also called for Tehran to punish those responsible for the accidental downing, pay compensation and apologize.

Iran’s acknowledgement it accidentally shot the plane came after the government had repeatedly denied Western accusations that it was responsible.

Iran’s belated acknowledgement of responsibility for the crash was likely to inflame public sentiment against authorities after Iranians had rallied around their leaders in the wake of Soleimani’s killing. Soleimani, the leader of the Guard’s elite Quds Force and the architect of Iran’s regional military interventions, was seen as a national icon, and hundreds of thousands of Iranians had turned out for funeral processions across the country.

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.

The crash came just weeks after authorities quashed nationwide protests ignited by a hike in gasoline prices. Iran has been in the grip of a severe economic crisis since US President Donald Trump withdrew America from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani blamed the shootdown of the plane in part on “threats and bullying” by the United States 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.

“A sad day,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted. “Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster. Our profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations.”

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 US and Canada, citing intelligence, said they believed Iran shot down the aircraft with a surface-to-air missile, a conclusion supported by videos verified by The Associated Press.

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, according to officials. The Canadian government had earlier lowered the nation’s death toll from 63.

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