In a surprise move, the Iranian armed forces says it accidentally shot down a Boeing 737-800 flown by Ukraine International Airlines on 8 January.
The admission comes after several days of repeated denials from Tehran that it had anything to do with the loss of flight PS752, an incident that killed 176 people.
The nation now says that the aircraft was shot down by a missile battery manned by jumpy soldiers nervous about possible American air strikes.
Iran was expecting air strikes in retaliation for a ballistic missile strike it launched hours earlier against US soldiers in Iraq. Its ballistic missile launch was itself retaliation for the USA’s assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani. Soleimani was killed by a US drone strike partly in retaliation for orchestrating attacks on the US embassy in Bagdad.
“Following the threats of the [US] President and the commanders [of the] military American criminal mob, in the hours after the missile strikes US terrorist forces’ warplanes around the country increased, and some reports of airstrikes targeting strategic centres in the country were reported to numerous defence units and targets on some radar plates,” the Iranian armed forces say in a media release posted to the country’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency. “It has caused more sensitivity in air defence units.”
The Iranian armed forces claim that after the Boeing 737 left Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport it began to fly a rotation that put it in “close proximity to a sensitive military centre of the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps].” The aircraft was “the height and shape of a hostile aircraft,” says the Iranian military.
“In these circumstances, the plane was accidentally hit by a human error, which unfortunately results in the martyrdom of dear compatriots and the death of a number of foreign nationals,” it says.
The admission of fault comes after several days of denials and insistence the aircraft had suffered unspecified mechanical problems. Tehran had said the missile attack allegation was “scientifically impossible”.
However, circumstances surrounding the downing of the airliner were highly suspicious. After taking off, the Boeing 737 climbed to 8,000ft, but then quickly lost altitude and crashed into the ground while on fire. Pilots made no distress calls from the cockpit.
Also, video on social media quickly surfaced of a missile flying through the night sky and striking an airliner in the area of the crash.
As those pieces of information began to emerge many expert observers began to suspect exactly what Iran is admitting now: an ill-trained missile unit under high stress, and poorly coordinated with civilian aviation authorities, mistakenly shot down flight PS752.
Experts believe the aircraft was shot down by a Russian-made short-range Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile battery.
Iran pledges to carry “out major reforms in [the] operational processes” of its armed forces “make such errors impossible” in the future. The country offered “condolences” and “apologises for the human error.”