TEHRAN: Iran said on Saturday it unintentionally shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing all 176 people aboard, in an abrupt about-turn after initially denying Western claims it was struck by a missile.

President Hassan Rouhani said a military probe into the tragedy had found that “missiles fired due to human error” brought down the Boeing 737, calling it an “unforgivable mistake”.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei offered his condolences and ordered the armed forces to address “shortcomings” so that such a disaster does not happen again.

The acknowledgement came after officials in Iran had for days categorically denied Western claims that the Ukraine International Airlines plane had been struck by a missile in a catastrophic error.

The aerospace commander of Revolutionary Guards accepts responsibility, says he informed govt of the error the day the crash occurred

The jet, 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 launched a wave of missiles at bases hosting American forces in Iraq in response to the killing of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike.

The aerospace commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards accepted full responsibility. But Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh said the missile operator acted independently, shooting down the Boeing 737 after mistaking it for a “cruise missile”.

The operator failed to obtain approval from his superiors because of disruptions to his communications system, he said. “He had 10 seconds to decide. He could have decided to strike or not to strike and under such circumstances he took the wrong decision.”

Hajizadeh said he had informed the authorities on Wednesday about the unintentional strike, a comment that raised questions about why officials had publicly denied it for so long.

In Twitter messages, angry Iranians asked why the plane was allowed to take off with tensions in Iran so high. A group of Iranians demanded Khamenei step down because of the disaster.

For his part, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter that “human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster”, citing an initial armed forces investigation into the crash.

Iran had come under mounting international 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.

Rouhani said that when the tragic incident happened Iran was 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.

Rouhani added he had ordered “all relevant bodies to take all necessary actions (to ensure) compensation” to the families of those killed.

“The perpetrators of this unforgivable mistake will be prosecuted.”

The majority of passengers on the flight PS752 were Iranian-Canadians but also included Ukrainians, Afghans, Britons and Swedes.

Calls for transparency Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky demanded Iran punish those responsible for the downing of the plane and pay compensation.

“We expect Iran... to bring the guilty to the courts,” he said on Facebook, before his office announced he would speak later on the phone with Rouhani.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for “transparency, and justice for the families and loved ones of the victims”.

“This is a national tragedy, and all Canadians are mourning together.”

Sweden demanded a “complete and transparent probe” while Afghanistan said families of 13 of its citizens killed in the tragedy “deserve answers”.

Iran has invited the United States, Ukraine, Canada and others to join the crash investigation.

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.

Video footage of Wednesday’s incident, which The New York Times said it had verified, 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.

Nations around the world have called for restraint by both Iran and the US, and fears of a full-blown conflict have subsided after President Donald Trump said Iran appeared to be standing down after targeting the US bases in Iraq.

Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2020