Middle East

Iran arrests suspects in plane disaster

Iranian students hold pictures of victims during a memorial for the passengers of the Ukraine plane crash in Tehran. AFP / ATTA KENARE

DUBAI: Iran said Tuesday it had arrested people accused of a role in shooting down a Ukrainian airliner and had also detained 30 people involved in protests that have swept the nation for four days since the military belatedly admitted its error. Wednesday’s downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752, which killed all 176 people aboard, has created a new crisis for the Islamic Republic’s clerical rulers.

President Hassan Rouhani promised a thorough investigation into the “unforgivable error” in an address Tuesday.

It was the latest in a series of apologies by the leadership that has done little to quell public anger.

Tehran has faced an escalating confrontation with the West and a wave of unrest since the United States killed Iran’s most powerful military commander in a drone strike on Jan. 3.

Iran shot down the plane Wednesday when its military was on high alert, hours after firing missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq. It admitted the mistake Saturday after days of denials.

Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said some of those accused of having a role in the plane disaster had been arrested, although he did not say how many or identify them.

Since the official admission, protesters, many of them students, have held daily demonstrations.

Police have responded to some protests with a violent crackdown, video posts on social media showed, with police beating protesters with batons, wounded people being carried, pools of blood on the streets and the sound of gunfire. A video that emerged Tuesday showed an officer using an electric baton to shock a man as he writhed on the ground.

Iran’s police have denied firing at protesters and said officers were ordered to act with restraint. The judiciary said 30 people had been detained in the unrest but said the authorities would show tolerance toward “legal protests.”

Protests Tuesday appeared peaceful, with scores gathering at two Tehran universities. “Where is justice?” some shouted.

The extent of the unrest is difficult to assess because of limits on independent reporting. Demonstrations tend to gather momentum into the night.

The domestic unrest triggered by the plane crash comes just two months after the most violent crackdown on protests since the revolution. The authorities killed hundreds of people to put down an uprising in November when demonstrators torched banks and petrol stations.

Adding to international tension, the judiciary spokesman branded Britain’s ambassador an “undesirable element,” after he was briefly detained Saturday, accused of inciting protests. The ambassador said he had been attending a vigil for victims. London said it had not been notified of any move to expel its envoy, Rob Macaire, and said such a step would be regrettable. Rouhani said the government would be accountable to Iranians and those nations who lost citizens. Most of those on board the flight were Iranians or dual nationals.

The disaster and subsequent unrest come amid one of the biggest escalations between Tehran and Washington since 1979.

Missiles launched at a U.S. base in Iraq killed an American contractor in December, an attack Washington blamed on an Iran-backed group. Confrontation eventually led to the U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3 that killed Gen. Qasem Soleimani, architect of Iran’s regional network of proxy militias.

Iran’s government was already reeling from the reimposition of sanctions by the United States, which quit an agreement with world powers under which Tehran would secure sanctions relief in return for scaling back its nuclear program.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 15, 2020, on page 1.

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