Iran said Saturday it unintentionally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane killing 176 people on board due to human error, after initially denying it brought down the plane.
Iran's armed forces said they mistook the passenger plane for a hostile target in the tense aftermath of Iran's ballistic missile attack on two military bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops. That attack was retaliation for the killing of Iran's top general, Qassem Soleimani, in an American airstrike in Baghdad.
An Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander said his unit accepts “full responsibility” for the accidental shootdown of a Ukrainian passenger plane last week.
In an address broadcast by state TV on Saturday, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh said that when he learned about the downing of the plane, which killed all 176 passengers on board, “I wished I were dead.”
The Guards said it would offer an explanation and apology on Saturday for the shooting down of the plane, the official IRNA news agency reported, citing an informed source within the Guards.
Wednesday's crash heightened international pressure on Iran after months of friction with the United States and tit-for-tat military strikes.
The United States and Canada, which had 57 citizens on board, had blamed an Iranian action for bringing down the aircraft. Ottawa had told Iran that "the world is watching."
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Following Iran's admission, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that his government sought a full investigation and full cooperation from the Iranian authorities.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the top authority in the Islamic Republic, was informed about the accidental shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner and said information should be publicly announced after a meeting of Iran's top security body, the semi-official Fars news agency said in a tweet.
Iran "deeply regrets" the accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner earlier this week, Iranian President Hassan Rohani said in a tweet on Saturday.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake," he wrote on Twitter. "My thoughts and prayers go to all the mourning families. I offer my sincerest condolences."
Rohani blamed the tragedy on “threats and bullying” by the United States after Soleimani's assassination.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the armed forces investigation showed the downing of the Boeing 737-800 was the result of "human error at time of crisis caused by U.S. adventurism (that) led to disaster."
The investigation will continue, Rouhani wrote in a separate tweet.
All 176 people aboard the airliner were killed in the crash shortly after takeoff.
An Iranian military statement, announcing that a missile had struck the plane and expressing condolences to the victims, said the plane had flown close to a sensitive military site belonging to the elite Revolutionary Guards.
It said responsible parties would be referred to a judicial department within the military and held accountable.
The statement added that the plane was mistaken for a “hostile target” after it turned toward a “sensitive military center” of the Revolutionary Guard. The military was at its “highest level of readiness," it said, amid the heightened tensions with the United States.
“In such a condition, because of human error and in a unintentional way, the flight was hit,” the military said. It apologized and said it would upgrade its systems to prevent future tragedies.
Mobile phone footage posted and circulated by ordinary Iranians on Twitter after the crash has indicated that it came down in a ball of flames.
Iran had said on Thursday it would download the information from voice and flight data recorders, known as black boxes, to determine what had happened, although it had said that the process could take one to two months.
Tehran said it could ask Russia, Canada, France or Ukraine for help in an effort that it said could take one or two years.
Many of the victims were Iranian with dual nationality.
Iran initially dismissed the accusations that a missile was to blame for the crash, calling such suggestions "psychological warfare".
Iran claiming responsibility for the incident undermines the credibility of information provided by senior Iranian officials. As recently as Friday, Ali Abedzadeh, the head of the national aviation department, had told reporters “with certainty” that a missile had not caused the crash.
On Thursday, Cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei dismissed reports of a missile, saying they “rub salt on a painful wound” for families of the victims.
Grief-stricken Iranians and others have posted images related to the crash. One showed a child's red shoe in the dirt. Another was a selfie of a mother and daughter in their seats, sent to a loved one just before takeoff.
"Why were any civilian airlines flying out of Tehran airport in those conditions?" a user named Shiva Balaghi wrote on Twitter.
Ukraine had been looking at various possible causes of the crash, including an attack by a Russian-made missile, a collision, an engine explosion or terrorism.
“This is the right step for the Iranian government to admit responsibility, and it gives people a step toward closure with this admission," said Payman Parseyan, a prominent Iranian-Canadian in western Canada who lost a number of friends in the crash.
“I think the investigation would have disclosed it whether they admitted it or not. This will give them an opportunity to save face.”