Iranian supreme leader calls for probe into 'shortcomings'

Ukraine’s president demands punishment, compensation for plane downed by Iran

Volodymyr Zelensky requests an official apology as Tehran says it accidentally shot down Ukrainian passenger jet, killing 176 people, after repeatedly denying responsibility

People and rescue teams amid bodies and debris after a Ukrainian plane carrying 176 passengers crashed near Imam Khomeini airport in the Iranian capital Tehran, killing everyone on board, January 8, 2020. (Rouhollah Vahdati/ISNA/AFP)
People and rescue teams amid bodies and debris after a Ukrainian plane carrying 176 passengers crashed near Imam Khomeini airport in the Iranian capital Tehran, killing everyone on board, January 8, 2020. (Rouhollah Vahdati/ISNA/AFP)

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky demanded Saturday that Iran punish those responsible for the downing of a Ukrainian airliner and pay compensation.

“We expect Iran… to bring the guilty to the courts,” the Ukrainian leader wrote on Facebook, calling also for the “payment of compensation” after Tehran admitted downing the plane and killing all 176 people on board.

The about-turn came after officials in Iran had categorically denied Western claims that the Ukraine International Airlines 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 Qassem Soleimani, one of Iran’s top generals, in a US drone strike.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 2019. (Timothy A. Clark/AFP)

“We hope the inquiry will be pursued without deliberate delay and without obstruction,” Zelensky said.

He urged “total access” to the full inquiry for 45 Ukrainian experts, and in a tweet also sought an “official apology.”

The head of Ukraine International Airlines said he was sure all along that the company was not at fault.

“We did not for a second doubt that our crew and our plane could not have been the cause of this terrible, awful air catastrophe,” airline president Evgeniy Dikhne said on Facebook. “They were our best guys and girls. The best.”

Iran’s supreme leader offered condolences and called for an investigation after his country’s armed forces acknowledged accidentally shooting down the Ukrainian passenger plane.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed his “deep sympathy” to the families of the 176 victims and called on the armed forces to “pursue probable shortcomings and guilt in the painful incident.”

“I emphatically advise the general headquarters (of the armed forces) to follow up on shortcomings” to ensure this kind of error does not happen again, said a statement on his official website.

Iranian 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.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, and President Hassan Rouhani greet at the official endorsement ceremony of President Rouhani in Tehran, Iran, August. 3, 2017. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Ukraine said Friday its experts dispatched to Iran had been granted access to the flight’s black boxes, debris from the plane, the crash site and to recordings of conversations between the pilot and the airport control tower.

The majority of passengers on UIA Flight PS752 were Iranian-Canadian dual nationals but also included Ukrainians, Afghans, Britons and Swedes.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said closure and accountability were needed after Iran said it had unintentionally shot down a Ukranian plane, killing 176 people.

He also demanded “transparency, and justice for the families and loved ones of the victims,” of whom many were Canadian dual nationals.

“This is a national tragedy, and all Canadians are mourning together,” Trudeau’s office said in a statement.

The partner of Julia Sologub, a member of the flight crew of the Ukrainian 737-800 plane that crashed on the outskirts of Tehran, reacts as he holds a portrait of her at a memorial inside Borispil international airport outside in Kyiv, Ukraine, January 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Iran must “learn lessons” from the disaster, the chairman of the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee said after the Iranian admission Saturday.

“If decryption of the black boxes and the work of the investigation do not prove that the Iranian army did this intentionally, and there are no logical reasons for this, the incident must be closed,” Konstantin Kosachev was quoted saying by the Interfax news agency.

“Hoping that lessons will be learned and action taken by all parties,” he added.

Russian had initially pushed back against Western intelligence assesments that Iran shot down the plane with a Russian made surface-to-air missile.

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.

A military statement carried by state media said the plane was mistaken for a “hostile target” after it turned toward a “sensitive military center” of the Revolutionary Guard. 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 apologized 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.

It was unclear whether the plane was shot down by Iran’s conventional forces or the powerful Revolutionary Guard, which answers directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Soleimani led the Guard’s elite Quds Force.

In this Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020 file photo, debris at the scene where a Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi, File)

Iran’s 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 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 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 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.

On Thursday, Cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei dismissed reports of a missile, saying they “rub salt on a painful wound” for families of the victims.

Iran has invited Ukraine, Canada, the United States and France to take part in the investigation of the crash, in keeping with international norms. The Boeing 737 was built in the United States and the engine was built by a US-French consortium.

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