Iran arrested an undisclosed number of suspects accused of involvement in shooting down a Ukrainian airliner, as anti-government demonstrations triggered by the disaster entered a fourth day.
Last Wednesday’s shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752, killing all 176 on board, led to one of the biggest public challenges to Iran’s cleric rulers since they came to power in the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
After days of denying blame, Iran acknowledged on Saturday it shot the airliner down during a state of high alert, hours after firing missiles at US targets in Iraq to retaliate for the killing of Iran’s most powerful military commander.
Protesters, with students at the forefront, held demonstrations against the establishment since Saturday some met by a violent police crackdown.
Video in Iran shows wounded people being carried, pools of blood on the streets and the sound of gunfire. The overall level of unrest is difficult to assess because of restrictions on independent reporting.
President Hassan Rouhani promised a thorough investigation into the “unforgiveable error” of shooting down the aircraft, giving a television address on Tuesday, the latest apology from a leadership that rarely admits mistakes.
Iran’s judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said some accused of having a role in the disaster had been arrested. He did not identify the suspects or say how many were being held.
Most on board the flight were Iranians or dual nationals. Canada, Ukraine, Britain and other nations who had citizens on the aircraft scheduled a meeting on Thursday in London to consider legal action against Tehran.
‘CLERICS GET LOST!’
The disaster and subsequent unrest comes amid a major escalation between Tehran and Washington since the revolution four decades ago that made them foes.
Tit-for-tat military strikes began with missiles launched at a US base that killed an American contractor in December and climaxed when Washington killed the architect of Iran’s regional network of proxy militia, Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike in Baghdad on January 3.
Iran’s government was already in a precarious position, with US sanctions hammering its economy, causing public anger.
Authorities killed hundreds of demonstrators in a crackdown two months ago, probably the worst anti-government unrest since the revolution. Across the region, governments including armed Iran-allied factions faced hostile mass demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon.
In recent days, demonstrators chanted “Clerics get lost!” and other slogans against Iran’s theocratic rule. “Death to Khamenei,” others shouted, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader for more than 30 years.
Riot police beat demonstrators with batons, social media posts show. Gunfire has been heard, although police deny shooting at protesters.
The most recent video posted on social media showed protesters gathered in Tehran and other cities, burning images of Soleimani.
“Iranian armed forces admitting their mistake is a good first step,” Rouhani said in Tuesday’s address. He said those responsible would be punished and government would be accountable to Iranians and nations who lost citizens.
“We will meet in London to discuss the ways, including legal, (for) how we are following this up,” Ukraine foreign minister Vadym Prystaiko said.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose nation had at least 57 citizens on the flight, told Global News TV victims would still be alive and at home with their families now if there were no tensions in the region.
According to a transcript, Trudeau said Canada did not receive a heads up before the United States killed Soleimani.
“The US makes its determinations. We attempt to work as an international community on big issues. Sometimes countries take action without informing allies,” he said.