Tehran: Iran on Saturday said it "unintentionally" shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing all 176 people on board, in an abrupt about-turn after initially denying Western claims it was struck by a missile. President Rouhani said a military probe into the tragedy had found "missiles fired due to human error" brought down the Boeing 737, calling it an "unforgivable mistake".
The U-turn came after officials in Iran had for three days 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 military was first to acknowledge the error, saying the Boeing 737 had been mistaken for a "hostile target". It said Iran had been at the highest level of alert after American "threats" and that the plane had turned and come close to a "sensitive" military site before it was hit due to "human error".
Rouhani said Iran had been on alert for possible US attacks after Soleimani's "martyrdom". "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," the president said. "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. "Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted. "Our profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations."