TEHRAN, Iran — Iran announced Saturday that its military "unintentionally" shot down the Ukrainian jetliner that crashed earlier this week, killing all 176 aboard, after the government repeatedly denied Western accusations that it was responsible.
The plane was shot down early Wednesday, hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an American 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 toward a "sensitive military center" of the Revolutionary Guard. The military was at its "highest level of readiness," it said, amid the heightened tensions with the United States.
"In such a condition, because of human error and in a unintentional way, the flight was hit," the statement said. It apologized for the disaster and said it would upgrade its systems to prevent such "mistakes" in the future.
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 rallied around their leaders in the wake of Soleimani's killing. The general was seen as a national icon, and hundreds of thousands of Iranians turned out for funeral processions across the country.
But the vast majority of the plane victims were Iranians or Iranian-Canadians, and the crash came just weeks after authorities quashed nationwide protests ignited by a hike in gasoline prices.
"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."
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 denied for several days that a missile caused the crash. But then the U.S. 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, at least 57 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials.
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"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."
On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the highest-level U.S. official to directly pin the blame on Iran, after Canadian, Australian and British leaders announced similar intelligence conclusions Thursday.
Pompeo said an investigation would continue into the incident and that once it was complete he was “confident that we and the world will take appropriate action as a response.”
Earlier Friday, Iran denied Western allegations that one of its own missiles downed the jetliner.
"What is obvious for us, and what we can say with certainty, is that no missile hit the plane," Ali Abedzadeh, head of Iran's national aviation department, told a press conference.
Hassan Rezaeifar, the head of the Iranian investigation team, said recovering data from the black box flight recorders could take more than a month and that the entire investigation could stretch into next year.
The ballistic missile attack on the bases in Iraq caused no casualties, raising hopes that the standoff over the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani would end relatively peacefully, though Iran has sent mixed signals over whether its retaliation is complete.
The U.S. officials did not say what intelligence they had that pointed to an Iranian missile, believed to be fired by Russian Tor system, known to NATO as the SA-15. But they acknowledged the existence of satellites and other sensors in the region, as well as the likelihood of communication interceptions and other similar intelligence.
Videos verified by The Associated Press appear to show the final seconds of the the ill-fated airliner, which had just taken off from Iran early Wednesday.
In one video, a fast-moving light can be seen through the trees as someone films from the ground. The light appears to be the burning plane, which plummets to the earth as a huge fireball illuminates the landscape.
Someone off-camera says in Farsi: "The plane has caught fire. … In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful. God, please help us. Call the fire department!"