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Iranian Protesters Demand Leaders Quit After Military Admits It Hit Plane

A viral showed student protesters avoiding stepping on American and Israeli flags imprinted on the street during their march

A picture is seen next to candles lit by people and families of the victims of the crash of the Boeing 737-800 plane, flight PS 752, in Tehran, Iran January 11, 2020.
Wana News Agency/REUTERS

Scores of protesters gathered for a second day in Iran on Sunday chanting slogans against the authorities following the military's admission it had shot down a passenger plane in error after days denying it was to blame, social media posts showed.

"They are lying that our enemy is America, our enemy is right here," protesters who had gathered in the street outside a university in Tehran chanted. They also gathered in other cities.

Riot police in black uniforms and helmets massed in Vali-e Asr Square, Tehran University and other landmarks as calls circulated for protests later in the day. Revolutionary Guard members patrolled the city on motorbikes and plainclothes security men were also out in force. People looked down as they walked briskly past the police, hoping not to draw attention.

"Even talking about it makes my heart beat faster and makes me sad,” said Zahra Razeghi, a Tehran resident. “I feel ashamed when I think about their families."

"The denial and covering up the truth over the past three days greatly added to the suffering and pain of the families, and me,” she added.

Another individual, who only identified himself as Saeed, said the largely state-run media had concealed the cause of the crash for “political reasons.”

“Later developments changed the game and they had to tell the truth," he said.

Hundreds of students gathered at Tehran's Shahid Beheshti University on Sunday to mourn the victims and protest against authorities for concealing the cause of the crash, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported. They later dispersed peacefully.

On Saturday, police fired teargas at thousands of Iranians who had taken to the streets in the capital and other cities, many chanting "Death to the dictator", directing their anger at Iran's top authority, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Mehdi Karroubi, an opposition activist under house arrest, lashed out at Khamenei himself.

“You, as the commander in chief of the armed forces, are directly responsible for this," he said in a statement. “If you were aware and you let military and security authorities deceive people, then there is no doubt you lack the attributes of constitutional leadership."

Criticism of the supreme leader is punishable by up to two years in prison.

Reports of the protests were carried by state-affiliated news agencies, while video clips circulated on social media.

One video showed student protesters avoiding stepping on American and Israeli flags imprinted on the street during their march, chanting that the U.S. and Israel are not the Iranian people's enemy.

Iranians students demonstrate following a tribute for the victims of Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 in front of the Amirkabir University in Tehran, January 11, 2020.
AFP

Tehran residents told Reuters that police had stepped up their presence in the capital on Sunday morning.

"Apologize and resign," Iran's moderate Etemad daily wrote in a banner headline on Sunday, saying the "people's demand" was for those responsible for mishandling the plane crisis to quit.

Speaking at the weekly government meeting on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the Iranian regime doesn't only repress the Iranian people and is the main purveyor of terrorism in the Middle East, but also "caused the death of 176 people and then hid it and lied to the international community."

"I would like to praise the bravery of the Iranian people for taking to the streets once again to demonstrate against this regime.They deserve to be free, to live in peace and with security – everything that this regime is preventing from them," the premier added.   

Netanyahu also sent his condolences to the families of the victims who died on the plane.    

All 176 people aboard the flight, many of them Iranians with dual citizenship, were killed.

Protests erupted after Saturday's admission that the military accidentally shot down the Ukraine International Airlines plane minutes after take off on Wednesday, when Iranian forces were alert for U.S. reprisals after tit-for-tat strikes.

For days, Iranian officials had vigorously denied it was to blame, even as Canada, which had 57 citizens on the flight, and the United States said their intelligence indicated an Iranian missile was to blame, albeit probably fired in error.

Iran's president said it was a "disastrous mistake" and apologized. But a top Revolutionary Guards commander added to public anger about the delayed admission, when he said he had told the authorities a missile hit the plane the day it crashed.

Challenges 

Another moderate daily Jomhuri-ye Eslami, or Islamic Republic, wrote in an editorial: "Those who delayed publishing the reason behind the plane crash and damaged people's trust in the establishment should be dismissed or should resign."

The hardline daily Vatan-e Emrouz bore the front-page headline, “A sky full of sadness,” while the Hamshahri daily went with “Shame,” and the IRAN daily said “Unforgivable.”

Criticism of the authorities in Iran is not unusual, but it tends to stay in narrow boundaries.

The press attacks and protests add to challenges facing the establishment, which in November faced the country's bloodiest unrest since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

As Saturday's protests spread across Iran, including major cities such as Shiraz, Isfahan, Hamedan and Orumiyeh, U.S. President Donald Trump said on Twitter: "We are following your protests closely, and are inspired by your courage."

"There can not be another massacre of peaceful protesters, nor an internet shutdown. The world is watching," he said, posting his tweets in both Farsi and English.

Britain said its ambassador in Iran had been briefly detained on Saturday by the authorities in Tehran. A news agency said he was detained outside a university for inciting protests.

Condemning the arrest, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Iran "can continue its march toward pariah status ... or take steps to de-escalate tensions and engage in a diplomatic path forward."

Protests inside Iran followed a build up of tension between Iran and the United States, which withdrew from Tehran's nuclear pact with world powers in 2018 and then re-imposed sanctions that have steadily crippled the Iranian economy.

'Horrific'

On January 3, a U.S. drone strike in Iraq killed prominent Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, responsible for building up Iran's network of regional proxy armies in Iraq and beyond, and Tehran responded with missile strikes on U.S. targets in Iraq.

No U.S. soldiers were killed, but in the tense hours after that, the Ukrainian Boeing 737 was cleared to take off from Tehran airport and then brought down by a missile fired in error by an operator who mistook the plane for an attacker.

"Shooting down a civilian aircraft is horrific. Iran must take full responsibility," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.

Trudeau said Iranian President Hassan Rohani had committed to collaborating with Canadian investigators, working to de-escalate tensions in the region and continuing a dialogue.

Rallying to the establishment, Iranian lawmakers praised the elite force's commanders for courage in admitting the error, according to Fars, a news agency seen as close to the Guards, a parallel military set up to protect the theocratic system.

Iranian officials sought to portray the plane disaster as a second blow to a mourning nation after Soleimani's death in a U.S. drone strike.

Soleimani's funeral had prompted huge public gatherings, which the authorities described a show of national unity. But the displays of emotion have been swiftly overshadowed and protesters on Saturday tore up pictures of the slain general.

Public fury at Iran's authorities had grown as questions about the plane crash mounted. Iranians on social media asked why officials were busy fending off criticism from abroad rather than sympathizing with grieving families. Others asked why the plane was allowed to take off at a time of high tension.