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Iran Admits To Shooting Down Ukraine Plane By Mistake

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ukraine is demanding a full apology and compensation after Iran admitted it mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian airliner shortly after departing Tehran's airport earlier this week. For days, Iran had been claiming it was a mechanical error that brought the airplane down, killing all 176 people onboard. Now Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, is expressing sincere condolences for what he called an unforgivable mistake. But in Tehran, protesters expressed their anger over the news. NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam has been following the story, and she's with us now.

Jackie, this is quite a reversal for Iran. Any indication of what prompted it?

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Well, most likely Iran realized it couldn't keep saying the crash was caused by a mechanical error when so many countries - the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and others - said they had evidence that it was an Iranian missile that brought the Ukrainian airline down. There were about 50 Ukrainian investigators at the crash site sifting through evidence and likely finding bits of shrapnel, which wouldn't be there if it was a mechanical error. It would have indicated that a missile had been involved.

You know, Michel, still, this is quite an admission for Iran. The commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps airspace unit said during a televised news conference that the Ukrainian plane had been mistaken for a cruise missile and had been shot down. He said a junior officer had made a mistake.

MARTIN: Now, we mentioned there were reports of protesters in Tehran. Tell us more about that and how Iranians in general are reacting to all of this.

NORTHAM: Well, there's been backlash. Iran's semi-official Fars News Agency is reporting on anti-government unrest in several cities. It said up to a thousand protesters were on the streets of Tehran shouting slogans against the Iranian leadership, including Ayatollah Khamenei. That may not sound like a lot of people, but it's Iran, where security forces crack down hard on dissent. And we have some sound from one of the protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Dishonor. Dishonor. Dishonor. Dishonor.

NORTHAM: These protesters are yelling dishonor at security forces. There's a lot on social media as well. Iranians are really angry that the military has shot down the Ukrainian plane and then lied about what happened. And the headline of one Iranian newspaper has the word unforgivable in large white type on a black background.

MARTIN: And what about reaction from around the rest of the world?

NORTHAM: Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is demanding a full investigation and compensation for the victims' families. The vice president of Ukrainian International Airlines called Iran irresponsible for not shutting its airspace after it launched rockets against Iraqi bases where U.S. forces are stationed. And that was in retaliation for the U.S. assassination of Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian commander.

Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, held a news briefing. He said he was outraged and furious. Fifty-seven Canadians lost their lives in that crash. But there were many other Iranians on that flight heading to Canada. Here's what Trudeau had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: I had a chance to sit with some of the families of the victims. They're hurt, angry and grieving. They want answers. They want justice.

NORTHAM: Trudeau added that Canada will not rest until it gets the accountability, justice and closure the families deserve.

TRUDEAU: That is NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam. Jackie, thank you so much for joining us.

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


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