Iran said on Saturday its military had mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian plane killing all 176 aboard, saying air defences were fired in error while on high alert in the tense aftermath of Iranian missile strikes on U.S. targets in Iraq.
Iran had previously vigorously denied bringing the plane down. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who until Saturday had kept silent about the crash, said information should be made public.
Wednesday’s crash heightened international pressure on Iran after months of friction with the United States and tit-for-tat attacks. A U.S. drone strike had killed a top Iranian military commander in Iraq on Jan. 3, prompting Tehran to fire at U.S. targets on Wednesday.
Canada, which had 57 citizens on board, and the United States had both said they believed an Iranian missile brought down the aircraft, although they said it was probably an error.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wrote on Twitter, promising that those behind the incident would be prosecuted. “My thoughts and prayers go to all the mourning families.”
Experts said mounting international scrutiny would have made it all but impossible to hide signs of a missile strike in any investigation and Iran may have felt a U-turn was better than battling rising criticism abroad and growing grief and anger at home, as many victims were Iranians with dual nationality.
In Twitter messages, angry Iranians asked why the plane was allowed to take off with tensions in Iran so high. The plane came down when Tehran was on alert for U.S. reprisals in the hours after Iran launched rockets at U.S. troops in Iraqi bases.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards apologised to the nation and accepted full responsibility. Senior Guards commander Amirali Hajizadeh said he wished “I could die” when he heard the news about the incident.
Responding to Iran’s announcement on Saturday, Ukraine demanded an official apology and compensation. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would work “to ensure a complete and thorough investigation” and wanted Iran’s full cooperation.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter that “human error at time of crisis caused by U.S. adventurism led to disaster”, citing an initial armed forces investigation into the crash of the Boeing 737-800.