Iranians defy police to join protests over downed plane

By Joseph Krauss and Jon Gambrell, Associated Press

Iranian demonstrators defied a heavy police presence to protest against their country’s days of denials that it shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane carrying 176 people.

Videos posted online showed protesters shouting anti-government slogans and moving through rail stations and pavements in Tehran, many near Azadi, or Freedom, Square after an earlier call for people to demonstrate there.

Other videos suggested similar protests were taking place in other Iranian cities.

Protesters often wore hoods and covered their faces. Some online videos purported to show police firing tear gas sporadically, although there was no immediate wholesale crackdown on demonstrators.

Meanwhile, in an emotional speech before parliament, the head of the Revolutionary Guard apologised for the shootdown and insisted it was a tragic mistake.

“I swear to almighty God that I wished I was on that plane and had crashed with them and burned but had not witnessed this tragic incident,” said Gen Hossein Salami.

“I have never been this embarrassed in my entire life. Never.”

Riot police in black uniforms and helmets earlier massed in Vali-e Asr Square, at Tehran University and other landmarks.

Revolutionary Guard members patrolled the city on motorbikes, and plainclothes security men were also out in force.

Protesters chant slogans and hold up posters of General Qassem Soleimani during a demonstration in front of the British Embassy in Tehran (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

The plane crash early on Wednesday killed everyone on board, mostly Iranians and Iranian-Canadians.

After initially pointing to a technical failure and insisting the armed forces were not to blame, authorities on Saturday admitted to accidentally shooting it down in the face of mounting evidence and accusations by Western leaders.

Iran downed the flight as it braced for possible American retaliation after firing ballistic missiles at two bases in Iraq housing US forces.

The missile attack, which caused no casualties, was a response to the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top general, in a US air strike in Baghdad. But no retaliation came.

Iranians have expressed anger over the downing of the plane and the misleading explanations from senior officials in the wake of the tragedy. They are also mourning the dead, which included many young people who were studying abroad.

“Even talking about it makes my heart beat faster and makes me sad,” said Zahra Razeghi, a Tehran resident. “I feel ashamed when I think about their families.”

Dozens gathered outside the embassy (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

Earlier on Sunday, hundreds of students gathered at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University to mourn the victims and protest against authorities for concealing the cause of the crash, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported.

Bahareh Arvin, a reformist member of the Tehran City Council, said on social media she was resigning in protest against the government’s lies and corruption.

“With the current mechanism, there is no hope of reform,” she said.

Some Iranian artists, including famed director Masoud Kimiai, withdrew from an upcoming international film festival.

US president Donald Trump, who has expressed support for past waves of anti-government demonstrations in Iran, addressed the country’s leaders in a tweet, saying “DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS.”

“The World is watching. More importantly, the USA is watching,” he tweeted.

Iranians took to the streets in November after the government hiked petrol prices, holding large protests in several cities.

The government shut down internet access for days, making it difficult to gauge the scale of the protests and the subsequent crackdown. Amnesty International later said more than 300 people were killed.

A candlelight ceremony late on Saturday in Tehran turned into a protest, with hundreds of people chanting against the country’s leaders — including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — and police dispersing them with tear gas.

Protests were also held in the city of Isfahan and elsewhere.

Police briefly detained the British ambassador to Iran, Rob Macaire, who said he went to the vigil without knowing it would turn into a protest.

“Can confirm I wasn’t taking part in any demonstrations!” he tweeted. “Went to an event advertised as a vigil for victims of #PS752 tragedy. Normal to want to pay respects — some of victims were British. I left after 5 mins, when some started chanting.”

He said he was arrested 30 minutes after leaving the area.

Britain said its envoy was detained “without grounds or explanation” and in “flagrant violation of international law”.

Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi later tweeted that Mr Macaire was arrested “as an unknown foreigner in an illegal gathering”.

Mr Araghchi said when police informed him that a man was arrested who claimed to be the British ambassador, he did not believe them.

But he said that once he spoke to Mr Macaire by phone, he realised it was him, and that the ambassador was freed 15 minutes later.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry later summoned the British ambassador over his ”illegal and inappropriate presence” at the protest, it said on its Telegram channel.

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, a member of Iran’s parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, accused the ambassador of organising protests and called for his expulsion.

Dozens of hard-liners later gathered outside the British Embassy, chanting “Death to England”. They also called for the ambassador to be expelled and the embassy to be closed.

Iranian media, meanwhile, focused on the admission of responsibility for the crash, with several newspapers calling for those responsible to apologise and resign.

The hard-line daily Vatan-e Emrouz bore the front-page headline “A sky full of sadness”, while the Hamshahri daily went with “Shame”, and the IRAN daily said “Unforgivable”.