DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – Iran’s admission that it shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 aboard, has provoked international outrage and triggered protests against Iranian authorities in Tehran and other cities, including one in which Britain’s ambassador was detained.
In what President Hassan Rouhani called a “disastrous mistake,” Iran said on Saturday that a missile fired in error on Wednesday by its air defenses while on alert after Iranian missile strikes on U.S. targets in Iraq had brought down the plane. Iran had denied for days after the crash that it had shot down the airliner.
Even as top Iranian officials and the military issued apologies, protests against authorities spread across Iran, including in the capital, Tehran.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who has said he does not seek “regime change” in Iran, took to Twitter to express his support for the demonstrators, writing, “We are following your protests closely, and are inspired by your courage.”
“The government of Iran must allow human rights groups to monitor and report facts from the ground on the ongoing protests by the Iranian people. There can not be another massacre of peaceful protesters, nor an internet shutdown. The world is watching,” Trump wrote in both English and Farsi.
Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed late on Saturday that its ambassador in Tehran had been briefly detained by Iranian authorities. The Tehran-based Tasnim news agency said the envoy was arrested for several hours in front of Amir Kabir University for inciting anti-government protesters.
“The arrest of our Ambassador in Tehran without grounds or explanation is a flagrant violation of international law,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement. “The Iranian government is at a crossroads moment. It can continue its march towards pariah status with all the political and economic isolation that entails, or take steps to de-escalate tensions and engage in a diplomatic path forwards.”
A leader of Iran’s opposition Green Movement, Mehdi Karroubi, called on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to step down over the handling of the downed airliner.
Foreign governments condemned the downing of the plane, with Ukraine demanding compensation.
Canada, Ukraine and Britain, however, called Tehran’s admission an important first step.
“What Iran has admitted to is very serious. Shooting down a civilian aircraft is horrific. Iran must take full responsibility,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose country had 57 citizens on board, told a news conference in Ottawa. “Canada will not rest until we get the accountability, justice, and closure that the families deserve.”
Trudeau said Rouhani had committed to collaborating with Canadian investigators, working to de-escalate tensions in the region and continuing a dialogue.
Up to 1,000 protesters chanted slogans in Tehran against the authorities, the semi-official Fars news agency said in a rare report on anti-government unrest.
Demonstrators ripped up pictures of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Quds Force commander who was killed in a Jan. 3 U.S. drone strike in Iraq that was ordered by Trump after a Dec. 27 rocket attack on a joint U.S.-Iraqi base, blamed on an Iran-backed militia, killed an American contractor.
Iran retaliated with missile strikes on U.S. targets in Iraq on Wednesday that put it on a state of high alert for possible U.S. reprisals when the Ukrainian plane was downed.
On Twitter, videos showed protesters demanding that Khamenei step down because of the disaster.
“Commander-in-chief resign, resign,” hundreds chanted in front of Tehran’s Amir Kabir university. The footage could not be verified.
In a televised address on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he had agreed with Rouhani on the beginning of joint work on decoding the black boxes from the downed aircraft. Zelenskiy also urged Ukraine’s international partners to be united and persistent until the investigation was complete.
Earlier, Zelenskiy said on Twitter that Iran’s acknowledgement was a step in the right direction but added, “The perpetrators must be held accountable.” Zelenskiy said Rouhani had apologized to him on behalf of Iran.
Khamenei, until now silent about the crash, said information about the incident should be made public.
The shooting down of the passenger jet heightened international pressure on Iran after months of friction with the United States and tit-for-tat attacks. Canada and the United States had both said early on that they believed an Iranian missile brought down the aircraft, probably in error.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake,” Rouhani wrote on Twitter, promising that those responsible would be prosecuted. “My thoughts and prayers go to all the mourning families.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo posted on Twitter a video of the protests in Tehran with the caption, “The voice of the Iranian people is clear. They are fed up with the regime’s lies, corruption, ineptitude and brutality” of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian military, under what he called Khamenei’s “kleptocracy.”
Experts said mounting international scrutiny would have made it all but impossible to hide signs of a missile strike in any investigation, and Iran may have felt a U-turn was better than battling rising criticism abroad and growing grief and anger at home, as many of the victims were Iranians with dual nationality.
In Twitter messages, angry Iranians asked why the plane was allowed to take off with tensions in Iran so high.
The plane, a Boeing 737-800 en route for Kiev, came down shortly after take-off from Tehran, when Iran was on alert for U.S. reprisals after launching rockets at U.S. troops in Iraqi bases.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, in a rare step, apologized to the nation and accepted full responsibility. Senior Guard commander Amirali Hajizadeh said he had informed Iran’s authorities on Wednesday about the unintentional strike, a comment that raised questions about why officials had publicly denied it for so long.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter that “human error at time of crisis caused by U.S. adventurism led to disaster,” citing an initial armed forces investigation into the crash.
A military statement said the plane flew close to a sensitive Revolutionary Guards site at a time of high alert. Ukraine said the plane was in a normal flight corridor and Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization said the airliner had not veered off its normal course.
Ukraine International Airlines said Iran should have closed the airport. The carrier said it had received no indication it faced a threat and was cleared for take-off.