The statement from Iran’s military came Saturday morning and blamed “human error” for the shootdown.
The jetliner went down on the outskirts of Tehran during takeoff early Wednesday, just hours after Iran launched a barrage of missiles at two Iraqi bases housing U.S. forces. No one was wounded in the strike on the bases.
Iran’s statement says the country’s military had to stay on high alert due to “unprecedented threats” from the U.S., which had ordered a strike that killed top-ranking Iranian military officer, Gen. Qassam Soleimani, on Jan. 3.
The Ukrainian airliner was approaching a sensitive military base belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps after its takeoff, according to the statement.
Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Guard’s aerospace division, 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 was dead.”
He said Guard forces ringing the capital had beefed up their air defences and were at the “highest level of readiness,” fearing that the U.S. would retaliate. He said the airline’s pilot and crew had done nothing wrong, but an officer made the “bad decision” to open fire on the plane after mistaking it for a cruise missile.
Iran apologized in the statement to those who lost their loved ones in the crash and pledges to bring justice to those responsible for the act and to upgrade its systems to prevent such “mistakes” in the future.
Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, said on Twitter that the country “deeply regrets this disastrous mistake.”
“Investigations continue to identify & prosecute this great tragedy & unforgivable mistake,” he said.
Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, said on Twitter in response to the news: “A sad day … Human error at the 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.”
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.”
Iran had denied for several days that a missile downed the aircraft, a Boeing 737-800 operated by Ukraine International Airlines, instead blaming a fire in the jet’s engine.
Earlier Friday, the head of Iran’s national aviation department, Ali Abedzadeh, 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 the U.S. and Canada are sure, he added, they should “show their findings to the world.”
But the U.S. and Canada, citing intelligence, said they believe Iran shot down the aircraft.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said multiple intelligence sources had indicated the plane was downed by an Iranian missile, possibly by accident — an assessment that has been echoed by Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australia’s Scott Morrison.
In a statement late Friday night, Trudeau said the Canadian government remains focused on providing “closure, accountability, transparency and justice for the families and loved ones of the victims.”
“This is a national tragedy, and all Canadians are mourning together,” the statement reads. “We will continue working with our partners around the world to ensure a complete and thorough investigation, and the Canadian government expects full cooperation from Iranian authorities.”
Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a tweet Saturday afternoon he spoke with Rouhani, and said Iran’s acknowledgement that the plane was shot down was a
“step in the right direction.”
“I insist on immediately completing identification of the bodies & their return to Ukraine,” the tweet reads. “The perpetrators must be held accountable.. We look forward to further legal & technical cooperation.”
Ukraine International Airlines vice president Ihor Sosnovskiy said Iran’s decision to leave its airspace open was “absolutely irresponsible.”
“There must be protection around ordinary people,” he told reporters. “If they are shooting somewhere from somewhere, they are obliged to close the airport.”
“It’s absolutely irresponsible,” Ukraine International Airlines vice president Ihor Sosnovskiy told reporters. “There must be protection around ordinary people. If they are shooting somewhere from somewhere, they are obliged to close the airport.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the highest-level American official to pin blame on Iran when he made similar comments Friday.
The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, at least 57 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials.
Sixty-three Canadians were originally thought to be on the plane, as cited by Ukrainian authorities, but Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne lowered that number to 57 on Friday evening after Canadian officials considered additional information.
The Canadian government has created an international task force, called the International Co-ordination and Response Group, to pressure Iran to conduct a thorough investigation on the crash. It includes Ukraine, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Afghanistan — all countries that lost citizens in the crash. Iran and Germany also had citizens on the plane, but decided to not be a part of the group.
“The UK will work closely with Canada, Ukraine and our other international partners affected by this accident to ensure this happens,” the statement reads.
Global Affairs Canada has deployed a team to identify victims’ remains, but Iran has so far only issued two visas, according to Champagne.
In a statement released Saturday, Queen Elizabeth extended her condolences in a message to the Governor-General of Canada.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Canada, which has suffered such a devastating loss,” the statement reads. “I extend my deepest condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of all those Canadians and indeed other nationalities, who died, and to the many other who have been affected by this terrible event.”
— With files from Amir Talebi, Hannah Jackson, the Associated Press and the Canadian Press