Iranian mourners slam authorities for concealing plane crash truth
Videos which surfaced online showed hundreds of mourners in Iran chant "death to the liars" just hours after comments from Iran's Revolutionary Guards that confirmed details of the plane's crash.
Despite Tehran's statement, Iranians expressed anger toward the government for initially denying it had shot down the passenger jet.
"It is a national tragedy. The way it was handled and it was announced by the authorities was even more tragic," said cleric Ali Ansari, according to Iran's semi-official ILNA news agency.
The aerospace commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh, had earlier vowed to "obey whatever decision is taken" by the government in remarks broadcast on state television.
"I take full responsibility…I would prefer to die rather than witness such an incident," he said, revealing that a missile that was fired at a Ukrainian passenger jet exploded next to the plane 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, Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh said in remarks aired on state TV. "It exploded when it hit the ground."
The Iranian missile operator who shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet opened fire independently because of communications "jamming", the commander added, which tragically resulted in the death of all 176 people aboard the flight.
The operator had mistaken the Boeing 737 for a "cruise missile" and only had ten seconds to decide whether or not to open fire, Hajizadeh said.
Earlier, 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 U-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.
Read more: Texts, selfies, and fear of war: The heartbreaking final moments of Iran's plane crash victims
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.
"Unintentionally? What does it mean? They concealed this huge tragic news for days just to mourn for Soleimani. Shame on you," said Reza Ghadyani, in Tabriz city, Reuters reported.
Mira Sedaghati in Tehran also slammed the recklessness involved in the incident.
"They were so careful not to kill any American in their revenge for Soleimani. But they did not close the airport? This shows how much this regime cares for Iranians," Sedaghati told Reuters by telephone.
Twitter user Ahmad Batebi on his @radiojibi account also took aim at authorities, saying they had avenged Soleimani's assassination by killing Iranians.
"You took your revenge from Iranians," Batebi said in response to Rouhani's apology on Twitter.
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."
On Saturday, Ukraine said Iran had provided enough data including videos and photographs to show the probe into Tehran's downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet will be objective and prompt.
President Volodymyr Zelensky's office said Tehran provided Ukrainian experts in Iran "with all the photos, videos and other materials" linked to the probe, "enough data to see that the investigation will be carried out objectively and promptly."
Iran has invited the United States, Ukraine, Canada and others to join the crash investigation.
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 steps and measures to remove the weak points of the country's defence systems so that such a catastrophe is never repeated again."
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The majority of passengers on UIA Flight PS752 were dual national Iranian-Canadians but also included Ukrainians, Afghans, Britons and Swedes.
Video footage of the UIA 737, which The New York Times said it had verified, emerged and appeared to show the moment the airliner was hit.
A fast-moving object is seen rising at an angle into the sky before a bright flash appears, which dims and then continues moving forward. Several seconds later, an explosion is heard and the sky lights up.
Many airlines from around the world cancelled flights to and from Iran in the wake of the crash, or rerouted flights away from Iranian airspace.
It is Iran's worst civil aviation disaster since 1988 when the US military said it shot down an Iran Air plane over the Gulf by mistake, killing all 290 people on board.