Iran has admitted that its military “unintentionally”shot down the Ukrainian passenger plane that crashed earlier this week, killing all 176 aboard.
The announcement comes after repeated denials of Western accusations that Iran was responsible.
The plane was shot down early on Wednesday, hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing US troops in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a US-ordered airstrike in Baghdad.
No-one was wounded in the attack on the bases.
A military statement carried by state media said the plane was mistaken for a “hostile target” after it turned towards a “sensitive military centre” of the Revolutionary Guard.
The military was at its “highest level of readiness,” it said, amid the heightened tensions with the US.
“In such a condition, because of human error and in an unintentional way, the flight was hit,” the military said. It apologised and said it would upgrade its systems to prevent future tragedies.
It also said those responsible for the strike on the plane would be prosecuted.
Iran’s acknowledgement of responsibility for the crash was likely to inflame public sentiment against authorities after Iranians had rallied around their leaders after Soleimani’s killing.
The general was seen by some as a national hero, and hundreds of thousands of people had publicly mourned during a funeral processions which traversed the country.
But the majority of the plane crash victims were Iranians or Iranian-Canadians, and the crash came just weeks after authorities quashed nationwide protests ignited by a rise in petrol prices.
Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani blamed the tragedy on “threats and bullying” by the US after the killing of Soleimani.
He expressed condolences to families of the victims, and he called for a “full investigation” and the prosecution of those responsible.
“A sad day,” Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted. “Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster. Our profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations.”
Queen Elizabeth released a statement on Saturday in the wake of the crash, writing that her thoughts and prayers were with Canada after the Iran passenger plane crash which killed 57 Canadians.
In a message to the Governor-General of Canada, the Queen said: “Philip and I have been deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life following the crash of the Ukrainian Airlines aircraft in Iran.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Canada, which has suffered such a devastating loss. I extend my deepest condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of all those Canadians, and indeed other nationalities, who died, and to the many others who have been affected by this terrible event.”
The jetliner, a Boeing 737 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines, went down on the outskirts of Tehran shortly after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport.
Iran had denied for several days that a missile caused the crash. But then the US and Canada, citing intelligence, said they believed Iran shot down the aircraft with a surface-to-air missile, a conclusion supported by videos of the incident.
The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. The Canadian government had earlier lowered the nation’s death toll from 63.
“This is the right step for the Iranian government to admit responsibility, and it gives people a step toward closure with this admission,” said Payman Parseyan, a prominent Iranian-Canadian in western Canada who lost a number of friends in the crash.
“I think the investigation would have disclosed it whether they admitted it or not. This will give them an opportunity to save face.”