Protests erupted across Iran for a second day on Sunday increasing pressure on the Islamic Republic’s leadership after it admitted its military shot down a Ukrainian airliner by accident, despite days of denials that Iranian forces were to blame.
“They are lying that our enemy is America, our enemy is right here,” one group of protesters chanted outside a university in Tehran, according to video posted on Twitter.
Other posts showed demonstrators outside a second university and protesters marching to Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) Square, as well as protests in other cities.
Some state-affiliated media carried reports of the university protests, which followed demonstrations sparked by Iran’s admission its military mistakenly shot down the aircraft on Wednesday, killing all 176 aboard, when Tehran feared US air strikes.
The Ukraine International Airlines aircraft was downed minutes after taking off from Tehran bound for Kiev. Many on board were Iranians with dual citizenship, while 57 were Canadian passport holders.
Residents told Reuters police were out in force on Sunday. Some protesters in Azadi Square called on officers there to join them then turned their anger on the authorities, chanting anti-government slogans including “Down with the dictator” – a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to social media posts and Iranian media reports.
The semi-official ILNA news agency said police moved to disperse protesters, who it said numbered as many as 3,000. Videos posted online showed demonstrators running from police using batons and teargas.
Reuters could not authenticate the videos.
Public anger boiled up following denials by the military that it was to blame for the crash, issued even as Canada and the United States said it appeared Iranian air defences shot down the airliner, probably in error.
“Apologise and resign,” Iran’s moderate Etemad daily wrote in a banner headline, saying the “people’s demand” was those responsible for mishandling the crisis quit.
The latest unrest adds to mounting pressure on the Iranian authorities struggling to keep a crippled economy afloat under stringent US sanctions.
Demonstrations against a hike in fuel prices turned political last year, sparking the bloodiest crackdown in the 40-year history of the Islamic Republic. About 1,500 people were killed in two weeks of unrest starting on November 15, three Iranian Interior Ministry officials told Reuters. International rights groups put the figure lower and Iran called the report “fake news.”
After saying he was “inspired” by the courage of demonstrators, President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter: “To the leaders of Iran – DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS. Thousands have already been killed or imprisoned by you and the World is watching. More importantly, the USA is watching. Turn your internet back on and let reporters roam free!”
Later Trump said on Twitter he did not care if Iran agreed to negotiate with the United States, after a senior adviser suggested the Islamic Republic would have no choice but to agree to talks.
‘IRAN’S ENEMIES WANT REVENGE’
About 2 000 people packed a vigil for the air crash victims in Toronto on Sunday and a similar number attended a memorial in Alberta, where Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke. Trudeau told the vigil he would “pursue justice and accountability” for the victims. “We will not rest until there are answers,” he said.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) obtained visas for two investigators to travel to Iran.
A second team of investigators specialising in aircraft recorder download and analysis will deploy once TSB confirms where and when that will be done, the agency said.
The downing of the aircraft came as Iranian forces were on high alert for US reprisals following tit-for-tat strikes.
No US soldiers were killed in retaliatory attacks. In the tense hours following, the Boeing 737-800 was cleared for take-off from Tehran airport and brought down by a missile fired in error.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani apologised for a “disastrous mistake”. A top Revolutionary Guards commander added to public anger when he said he told the authorities on the same day as the crash an Iranian missile brought down the aircraft.
Guards’ top commander Hossein Salami said “we are more upset than anyone over the incident,” state media reported. Another commander said Iran did not intend to conceal the cause.
Others said Iran’s enemies, a term usually used referring to Washington and its allies, were exploiting the incident.
“Iran’s enemies want to take revenge on the Guards for a military mistake,” said Ali Shirazi, Khamenei’s representative to the Quds Force, the elite overseas Guards unit Soleimani headed, state media reported.
Iranian officials sought to portray the aircraft disaster as a second blow to a nation mourning after Soleimani’s death.
His funeral prompted huge public gatherings, which authorities described as a show of national unity. Displays of emotion were swiftly overshadowed and protesters tore up pictures of the slain general.