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Iran Says It Shot Down Ukrainian Plane By Mistake


Iran has admitted it unintentionally shot down the Ukrainian passenger plane this week that killed all 176 people on board. A statement carried on state-run television blamed the incident on human error. The plane was on fire when it crashed just minutes after taking off from an airport just outside Tehran on Wednesday morning. Shortly before the plane crash, Iran had fired missiles at U.S. forces at two bases in Iraq in retaliation for the U.S. killing of General Qassem Soleimani.

NPR's Jackie Northam has been on this story and joins us now. Jackie, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: For days, of course, Iran had blamed a mechanical error for the crash. What exactly have they said now?

NORTHAM: Well, Iran's leadership has been tweeting statements about the crash. And Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said this is a sad day that preliminary conclusions of internal investigation by the armed forces in Iran found that, quote, "human error at a time of crisis caused by U.S. adventurism led to disaster." President Hassan Rouhani tweeted that investigators will continue to identify and prosecute those responsible for what he called this unforgivable mistake.

This admission is surprising, Scott. I think there was a sense that Iran would continue saying it was mechanical problems that caused the Ukrainian Airlines flight to crash. But Iran was under a lot of pressure. The U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia all publicly said they had evidence that an Iranian missile brought down the plane.

SIMON: Did the government say - offer any more information on how the accident occurred?

NORTHAM: Yes. A statement by Iran's armed forces, which was broadcast on state television, said it detected a lot of U.S. warplanes on its radar in the hours leading up to the crash. It said that the Ukrainian passenger jet was approaching a sensitive military installation in such a way and at such an altitude that it was mistaken for a hostile aircraft. And it was shot down, killing all 176 people on board. The statement expressed sympathy to the grieving families and promised reform in operation procedures of the armed forces so that it doesn't happen again. And this statement also said the person responsible for shooting down the passenger plane would face consequences.

SIMON: And what kind of reaction has there been to the admission so far?

NORTHAM: On his Facebook post, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said this wasn't a good morning, but it brought the truth and that Ukraine expects a full and open investigation by Iran and that it wants those responsible brought to justice. And it wants compensation.

Fifty-seven Canadian citizens lost their lives. And there's growing anger, Scott, in Canada about the crash, with some saying that it wouldn't have happened if the U.S. had not killed Qassem Soleimani, the senior Iranian military commander, which ratcheted up tensions in the region. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is quoting unnamed government officials saying that Ottawa should've been warned in advance that the U.S. was going to kill Soleimani.

SIMON: Jackie, you reported yesterday that Ukrainian investigators were already on the ground near Tehran. Canada, which, as you note, lost nearly 60 citizens in the crash, is also sending investigators - other nations, including the U.S. because, of course, it was a Boeing aircraft. What will the investigators be looking for now?

NORTHAM: Investigators want to search the debris field and find out what kind of missile brought down the plane. But, Scott, a CBS television crew visited the site yesterday and said virtually all the pieces of the plane had been carried off and that scavengers were picking through the debris field.

SIMON: NPR's Jackie Northam, thanks so much.

NORTHAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.