PM Shehbaz announces day of mourning on Tuesday for Iranian helicopter crash victims

Published May 20, 2024
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi gestures during a meeting with Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro at the Miraflores Palace, in Caracas, Venezuela on June 12, 2023. — Reuters
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi gestures during a meeting with Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro at the Miraflores Palace, in Caracas, Venezuela on June 12, 2023. — Reuters
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian speaks during a UN Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question, at UN headquarters in New York City on April 18, 2024. — AFP/File
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian speaks during a UN Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question, at UN headquarters in New York City on April 18, 2024. — AFP/File
This frame grab from video released by the Iranian Red Crescent on May 20 shows a screen display showing a video showing the crash site of the missing helicopter carrying President Ebrahim Raisi in East Azerbaijan province. — AFP
This frame grab from video released by the Iranian Red Crescent on May 20 shows a screen display showing a video showing the crash site of the missing helicopter carrying President Ebrahim Raisi in East Azerbaijan province. — AFP

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Monday declared a day of national mourning in the country for May 21 to pay respects to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and other dignitaries who passed away in a helicopter crash.

Raisi, a hardliner long seen as a potential successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was killed in a helicopter crash in mountainous terrain near the Azerbaijan border, officials and state media said earlier today.

The charred wreckage of the helicopter which crashed on Sunday carrying Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and six other passengers and crew was found early on Monday after an overnight search in blizzard conditions.


What we know so far:

  • Nine people were on board; no official word on cause of crash
  • Convoy’s two other copters reached safely, Iranian media says
  • Pakistan to observe day of mourning, flag to fly at half-mast
  • Rescue teams fought blizzards, difficult terrain during night-long efforts aided by other countries
  • First Vice President Mokhber to take over as interim president

A notification from the Cabinet Division issued today said: “In an expression of fraternal solidarity on behalf of the government and people of Pakistan with the government and people of Iran on the sad demise of the President of Iran Ebrahim Raisi and other dignitaries, the prime minister has declared Tuesday, May 21, as a day of national mourning in Pakistan.”

The national flag will fly at half-mast throughout the country on Tuesday.

Iran’s military chief of staff Mohammad Bagheri ordered a probe into the cause of the helicopter crash.

Bagheri ordered “a high-ranking committee to launch an investigation into the cause of the president’s helicopter crash”, the ISNA news agency reported.

Supreme Leader Khamenei, who holds ultimate power with a final say on foreign policy and Iran’s nuclear programme, said First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber would take over as interim president, the official IRNA news agency reported.

“I announce five days of public mourning and offer my condolences to the dear people of Iran,” Khamenei said in a statement. Mokhber, like Raisi, is seen as close to Khamenei.

Under Iran’s constitution, a new presidential election must be held within 50 days.

Footage from Iranian state television showed wreckage scattered on a foggy hillside, while separate images from IRNA showed Red Crescent workers carrying a covered body on a stretcher. All those aboard the helicopter were killed, a senior Iranian official had earlier told Reuters.

Killed alongside Raisi were FM Amirabdollahian, known for his fierce anti-Israel sentiment and scepticism of the West, and seven others, including the governor of East Azerbaijan Province and a senior imam from Tabriz city.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani was appointed as acting foreign minister following the death of Amirabdollahian, IRNA said.

A total of nine people were on board the aircraft, according to Tasnim news agency. Raisi’s convoy had included three helicopters, and the other two had “reached their destination safely”, said the news agency.

An Israeli official told Reuters it was not involved in the crash. “It wasn’t us,” said the official, who requested anonymity.

Iranian authorities first raised the alarm on Sunday afternoon when they lost contact with Raisi’s helicopter as it flew through a fog-shrouded mountain area of the Jolfa region of East Azerbaijan province.

The helicopter went down in the Varzeqan region north of Tabriz, IRNA reported, as Raisi returned from an official visit to the border with Azerbaijan.

Raisi had been at the Azerbaijani border to inaugurate the Qiz-Qalasi Dam, a joint project. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, who said he had bid a “friendly farewell” to Raisi earlier in the day, also offered assistance in the rescue.

State media reported that images from the site showed the US-made Bell 212 helicopter slammed into a mountain peak, although there was no official word on the cause of the crash. An Iranian official earlier told Reuters that the helicopter was completely burned in the crash.

Rescue teams fought blizzards and difficult terrain through the night to reach the wreckage in East Azerbaijan province in the early hours of Monday.

“Upon finding the helicopter, there was no sign of the helicopter passengers being alive as of yet,” state TV reported about 15 hours after the aircraft went missing.

The crash comes at a time of growing dissent within Iran over an array of political, social and economic crises. Iran’s clerical rulers face international pressure over Tehran’s disputed nuclear programme and its deepening military ties with Russia during the war in Ukraine.

Since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct 7, provoking Israel’s assault on Gaza that has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, conflagrations involving Iran-aligned groups have erupted throughout the Middle East.

A long “shadow war” between Iran and Israel broke into the open last month with tit-for-tat exchanges of drone and missile fire.

Raisi, 63, was elected president in 2021, and since taking office has ordered a tightening of morality laws, overseen a bloody crackdown on anti-government protests and pushed hard in nuclear talks with world powers.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate power with a final say on foreign policy and Iran’s nuclear programme, sought to reassure Iranians, saying there would be no disruption to state affairs.

The Iranian government will continue to operate “without the slightest disruption” following Raisi’s death, said a cabinet statement on Monday.

‘Pakistan mourns loss of great friend’

President Asif Ali Zardari “expressed profound shock and sorrow over the tragic death” of his Iranian counterpart.

In a statement issued by the president’s office, Zardari “emphasised that the Islamic World has lost a remarkable leader who always supported [the] Muslim cause and deeply felt the sufferings of the Muslims globally, particularly the Palestinian and Kashmiri people”.

“Today, Pakistan mourns the loss of a great friend. Just last month, we had the honour of hosting him in Pakistan. During our discussions, I found him very keen on strengthening our bilateral relations,” President Zardari said, recalling Raisi’s visit to Pakistan last month.

Highlighting that the Iranian president “always had a special place for Pakistan and its people”, Zardari said Raisi will be “dearly missed and fondly remembered in Iran, Pakistan, and the Islamic World for his efforts to enhance relations with regional and Islamic countries”.

PM Shehbaz, extending his deepest condolences and sympathies to the Iranian nation, said Pakistan would observe a day of mourning and the flag would fly at half-mast.

“Had been anxiously following developments regarding the reported crash landing of President Raisi’s helicopter. Was hoping for good news. Alas, this was not to be,” the premier said in a post on X.

“The great Iranian nation will overcome this tragedy with customary courage,” he added.

In another post, PM Shehbaz recalled Raisi’s and the foreign minister’s “historic visit” to the country: “They were good friends of Pakistan.”

PM Shehbaz later visited the Iranian embassy to offer his condolences to Ambassador Dr Reza Amiri Moghaddam.

“President Dr Syed Ebrahim Raisi was a brilliant scholar and visionary leader. Today, Pakistan has lost a friend like Dr Raisi, a sincere and high quality brother. His services to his own nation as well as to the strengthening of Pakistan-Iran relations and regional cooperation will always be remembered,” PM Shehbaz said.

Ambassador Moghaddam said Raise had also considered Shehbaz as the “best person and friend of Iran”.

“The late President Ebrahim Raisi’s vision of strengthening and promoting Pakistan-Iran relations will be continued,” he said.

He appreciated the premier’s visit in a separate post on X as well.

Deputy PM Ishaq Dar — also the foreign minister — said he was “truly aggrieved” about Raisi’s death and “deeply saddened to know about the martyrdom of my friend and brother” FM Amirabdollahian.

“In President Raisi’s recent visit to Pakistan, he played [an] instrumental role in solidifying Pakistan-Iran ties,” the foreign minister said about his Iranian counterpart.

Remembering Raisi, Dar said: “Today Ummah has lost a great statesman. Pakistan has lost a true friend.”

The Foreign Office (FO) said the government and the Pakistani people were “deeply shocked and saddened by the tragic news of the martyrdom” of Raisi and FM Amirabdollahian.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the martyrs and the people of the Islamic Republic of Iran. We stand in solidarity with them in this time of National tragedy,” it said in a statement.

Stating that the two were “esteemed leaders and statesmen”, the FO highlighted that their contributions to reinforcing Pak-Iran ties and regional cooperation would always be remembered.

“Pakistan reiterates its commitment to furthering the bonds of friendship and cooperation with Iran, as envisioned by the late leaders. May the departed souls rest in eternal peace in Jannah,” the statement added.

Interior Minister Mohsin Naqvi also expressed his condolences, adding that his recent meeting with the Iranian president was a memorable one.

Former foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said, “Our heartfelt condolences go out to the brotherly people of Iran, especially the families of President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, following the tragic incident.”

Praying for both leaders, the PPP chairman said Pakistan’s thoughts and prayers were with their families and all Iranian brothers and sisters during this profound time of sorrow.

Former president Arif Alvi said he expressed “deep grief, sorrow and regret over the loss of precious lives” in the crash, calling Raisi his “close friend and companion”.

“I found respected Raisi sahib to be very hardworking, principled and empathiser of the Islamic world. The deceased had a very knowledgeable, good-natured and interesting personality,” he added.

Prayers, searches

 Rescuers participate in what the Iranian Red Crescent Society says is a search and rescue operation following the crash of a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, at an unidentified location in this still image taken from video released on May 20. — Iranian Red Crescent Society via Reuters
Rescuers participate in what the Iranian Red Crescent Society says is a search and rescue operation following the crash of a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, at an unidentified location in this still image taken from video released on May 20. — Iranian Red Crescent Society via Reuters

Expressions of concern and offers of help came from abroad, including Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Russia, China and Turkiye, as well as from the European Union which activated its rapid response mapping service to aid in the search effort.

Iran’s cabinet held an emergency meeting led by Vice President Mohammad Mokhber after the incident, the IRNA news agency reported.

Army, Revolutionary Guard and police officers were involved in the search, authorities said, as TV stations showed pictures of Red Crescent teams walking up a hill in the mist, while rows of emergency response vehicles waited.

A Turkish drone identified a source of heat suspected to be the helicopter’s wreckage and had shared the coordinates of the possible crash site with Iranian authorities, Anadolu news agency said earlier on X.

IRNA said Raisi was flying in a US-made Bell 212 helicopter.

Earlier, the national broadcaster had stopped all regular programming to show prayers being held for Raisi across the country.

In the early hours of Monday, it showed a rescue team, wearing bright jackets and head torches, huddled around a GPS device as they searched a pitch-black mountainside on foot in a blizzard.

“We are thoroughly searching every inch of the general area of the crash,” state media quoted a regional army commander as saying. “The area has very cold, rainy, and foggy weather conditions. The rain is gradually turning into snow.”

A US State Department spokesman said: “We are closely following reports of a possible hard landing of a helicopter in Iran carrying the Iranian president and foreign minister”, adding that “we have no further comment at this time”.

US President Joe Biden has been briefed on the crash, an American official said on condition of anonymity.

China said it was deeply concerned. The European Union offered emergency satellite mapping technology.

Hardliner, possible successor to Khamenei

 Rescue vehicles are seen following a crash of a helicopter carrying Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, in Varzaqan, East Azerbaijan Province, Iran on May 19, 2024. — Wana via Reuters
Rescue vehicles are seen following a crash of a helicopter carrying Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, in Varzaqan, East Azerbaijan Province, Iran on May 19, 2024. — Wana via Reuters

The crash comes at a time of growing dissent within Iran over an array of political, social and economic crises. Iran’s clerical rulers face international pressure over Tehran’s disputed nuclear programme and its deepening military ties with Russia during the war in Ukraine.

Since Iran’s ally Hamas attacked Israel on Oct 7, provoking Israel’s assault on Gaza, conflagrations involving Iran-aligned groups have erupted throughout the Middle East.

In Iran’s dual political system, split between the clerical establishment and the government, it is Raisi’s 85-year-old mentor Khamenei, supreme leader since 1989, who holds decision-making power on all major policies.

For years many have seen Raisi as a strong contender to succeed Khamenei, who has endorsed Raisi’s main policies. Raisi’s victory in a closely managed election in 2021 brought all branches of power under the control of hardliners, after eight years when the presidency had been held by pragmatist Hassan Rouhani and a nuclear deal negotiated with powers including Washington.

However, Raisi’s standing may have been dented by widespread protests against clerical rule and a failure to turn around Iran’s economy, hamstrung by Western sanctions.

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