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People walk near the wreckage after a Ukrainian plane crashed near Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: Iran said Saturday it had unintentionally shot down the Ukrainian airliner that crashed this week outside Tehran killing 176 people, calling it an "unforgivable mistake".

"It was a short-range missile that exploded next to the plane. That's why the plane was able" to continue flying for a while, Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh said in remarks aired on state TV.

"It exploded when it hit the ground."

He added: "The guards bear full responsibility for the Ukrainian plane accident. We will respect any decision taken by the officials."

"When I was certain that this incident had occurred, I truly wished death upon myself, because I'd rather have died than witness such an incident." Hajizadeh said in a briefing Saturday in Tehran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has told his Ukrainian counterpart that those behind the downing of the Ukrainian airliner will be brought to justice, the Ukranian presidency said.

Rouhani told Volodymyr Zelensky that "all the persons involved in this air disaster will be brought to justice," it said.


Meanwhile, he explained the circumstances of the shooting down of the Ukrainian Boeing 737 plane, saying: "The United States threatened to hit 52 targets in Iran, so all the offensive and defensive units were on alert. The defense system was operating under the same conditions."

"On that night the country was at war, at the highest level of alert. And in such circumstances the defense system identified a target 19 kilometers away, and it wrongly identified it as a cruise missile."

"The Iranian missile operator who shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet opened fire independently because of communications "jamming"," Revolutionary Guards commander said.

"The operator had mistaken the Boeing 737 for a "cruise missile" and only had ten seconds to decide whether or not to open fire," Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh, the Guards' aerospace commander, said in televised remarks

He also revealed that the Revolutionary Guards informed the authorities Wednesday, moments after the incident, adding that he did not want the matter to be kept secret.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave his condolences over the disaster, while President Hassan Rouhani said the Islamic Republic "deeply regrets the disastrous mistake" and vowed compensation for the families of victims.

Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was flying close to a sensitive Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps military site when it was downed because of "human error," the army said after conducting its own investigation.

The "culprits" would be identified and referred to judicial authorities, it said.

Ukraine demands punishment for plane downing

Ukraine on Saturday demanded that Iran punish those guilty for the downing of a Ukrainian airliner and compensate victims while praising Tehran for cooperating with the "objective" investigation.

Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky was due to discuss the incident with his Iranian counterpart President Hassan Rouhani at 5:00 pm local time (1500 GMT), his press office said.

"We expect Iran... to bring the guilty to the courts," the Ukrainian leader wrote on Facebook, calling also for the "payment of compensation" and the return of remains.

Kiev said that Iran had cooperated with its experts and it expects an objective probe.

Tehran has handed Ukrainian experts enough data including "all the photos, videos and other materials" to show the investigation "will be carried out objectively and promptly," Zelensky's office said.

"The political part of the work is finished," it added.

UIA chief Yevhenii Dykhne said at a press conference in Kiev on Saturday that Tehran should have closed the airport due to the escalation of tensions in the region following the US assassination of a top Iranian general.

"It's absolutely irresponsible... if you're playing at war, they were obliged to close the airport," Dykhne said.

He wrote on Facebook that the Ukrainian crew and the aircraft "were the best."

US, Ukraine, Canada others invited to probe crash

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

Iran will send the black boxes of the crashed jet to France as it lacks the technology to decode them, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

Angry Iranians question authorities

Iran's statement on Saturday that a Ukrainian passenger plane was downed by a missile fired unintentionally followed growing pressure from abroad but also at home.

And for some Iranians, the authorities' expressions of condolence were not enough.

For days, Iran had denied Western accusations it was responsible for Wednesday's crash soon after take-off from Tehran, in which all 176 people aboard were killed.

Fired in error

Authorities said on Saturday that air defences had been fired in error while on high alert following Iranian missile strikes on US targets in Iraq.

Expressions of condolence over the incident from Supreme Leader and President Hassan Rouhani failed to calm angry Iranians, who used social media to express their outrage against the establishment for concealing the truth.

"It is a national tragedy. The way it was handled and it was announced by the authorities was even more tragic," said Ali Ansari, a moderate cleric, according to Iran's semi-official ILNA news agency.

Many Iranians asked why authorities did not close down Tehran's airport and the country's airspace at a time when they would have been on alert for retaliation after the missile strikes.

There were no fatalities in those strikes, launched to avenge the January 3 US killing of top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike in Baghdad.

"They were so careful not to kill any American in their revenge for Soleimani. But they did not close the airport? This shows how much this regime cares for Iranians," said Mira Sedaghati in Tehran by telephone.

'Hostile target'

An Iranian military statement carried by state media said the Ukrainian plane, which was headed for Kiev, was mistaken for a "hostile target" after it turned toward a sensitive military base of the elite Revolutionary Guards near Tehran, adding that it was a "human error and unintentional".

"Unintentionally? What does it mean? They concealed this huge tragic news for days just to mourn for Soleimani. Shame on you," said Reza Ghadyani, in Tabriz city.

The country held three days of funeral processions for Soleimani, who was head of the Revolutionary Guards' overseas Quds Force and a national hero.

Hundreds of thousands of people participated across the country.

Some Iranians called for resignation of officials, dismissing their apologies.

"You took your revenge from Iranians," tweeted Ahmad Batebi on his @radiojibi Twitter account, in response to Rouhani's tweet saying that "The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake".

"Only resignation," tweeted Sadeq on his @sadeq1367 account In a Twitter message on Saturday, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif cast some of the blame for the plane disaster on what he called US adventurism.

"It's the end line Mr. Minister! You ruined everything!," responded Bita Razaqi on @bitarazaqi.