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People were lied to for days over jetliner crash, top Iranian diplomat admits

World News | Published:

The incident has sparked days of angry protests in the country.

Iran’s top diplomat acknowledged Wednesday that Iranians “were lied to” for days, after the Islamic Republic accidentally shot down a Ukrainian jetliner.

The admission came as new surveillance footage purported to show two surface-to-air missiles 20 seconds apart shred the plane and kill all 176 people on board.

The downing of the Ukraine International Airlines flight last week came amid heightened tensions between Iran and the US over its unravelling nuclear deal.

Iran Plane crash vigil
People gather for a vigil to remember the victims of the Ukraine plane crash (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

The crash, and subsequent days of Iranian denials that a missile had downed the plane, has sparked angry protests in a country already on edge as its economy struggles under crushing American sanctions.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran reached a fever pitch two weeks ago with the American drone strike in Baghdad that killed the powerful Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani.

The general had led Iranian proxy forces abroad, including those blamed for deadly roadside bomb attacks on US troops in Iraq.

Iran retaliated with a ballistic missile strike targeting Iraqi military bases housing US forces early last Wednesday, just before Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard shot down the Ukrainian airliner taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport.

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Iran Plane Crash
Protesters hold flowers as tear gas is fired by police (AP)

It was not until Western governments, including Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, went public with their suspicions the plane had been shot down that Iran admitted it fired on the plane.

Not admitting the plane had been shot down “was for the betterment of our country’s security, because if we had said this, our air defence system would have become crippled and our guys would have had doubted everything,” said General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Guard’s aerospace programme, in television footage aired Wednesday.

Gen Hajizadeh only days earlier apologised on state television and said: “I wish I were dead.”

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Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking at a summit in New Delhi, became the first official to describe Iran’s earlier claims as a lie.

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks in New Delhi
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks in New Delhi (Manish Swarup/AP)

Mr Zarif went on to praise Iran’s military for being “brave enough to claim responsibility early on”.

However, he said that he and Mr Rouhani only learned that a missile had downed the flight on Friday, raising new questions over how much power Iran’s civilian government has in its Shiite theocracy.

The Guard knew immediately afterwards that its missile downed the airline.

The Guard is answerable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is expected to preside over Friday prayers in Iran for the first time in years over anger about the crash.

The new surveillance footage obtained by The Associated Press showing the missile fire was filmed off a monitor by a mobile phone. It appears to be taken near the town of Bidkaneh, northwest of Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport.

Iran Plane Crash
President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a cabinet meeting in Tehran (Office of the Iranian Presidency/AP)

Ten seconds later, another missile is fired. Some 20 seconds after the first explosion, another strikes near the plane. A ball of flames then falls from the sky out of frame.

The footage corresponds with AP reporting, appears genuine and matches geographic features of the area.

The date in the upper right-hand corner of the video appears to correspond to Iran’s Persian calendar. It also explains how so many people filmed the shoot down: The first explosion drew their attention and their filming mobile phones to the predawn sky.

Speaking before his cabinet, Mr Rouhani showed a rarely seen level of anger in wide-ranging remarks on Wednesday that included the threat to Europe.

“Today, the American soldier is in danger, tomorrow the European soldier could be in danger,” Mr Rouhani said.

“We want you to leave this region but not with war. We want you to go wisely. It is to your own benefit.”

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