Angry at state for handling of plane crisis, Iranians took to the streets across the country. Tehran spent days after Wednesday's crash denying role, but ended up admitting military had shot Ukranian Airlines jetliner down.

A woman holds a picture of newlyweds, victims of the crash of the Boeing 737-800 plane, flight PS 752, as people gather to show their sympathy in Tehran, Iran January 11, 2020.
A woman holds a picture of newlyweds, victims of the crash of the Boeing 737-800 plane, flight PS 752, as people gather to show their sympathy in Tehran, Iran January 11, 2020. (Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) / Reuters)

Iranian demonstrators defied a heavy police presence on Sunday night to protest their country's days of denials that it shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane carrying 176 people, the latest unrest to roil the capital amid soaring tensions with the United States.

Videos posted online showed protesters shouting anti-government slogans and moving through subway stations and sidewalks, 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.

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. People looked down as they walked briskly past police, hoping not to draw attention to themselves.

Trump's warning

US President Donald Trump warned Iran on Sunday against killing protesters who have risen up over the regime's downing of a civilian airliner.

"To the leaders of Iran - DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS," Trump tweeted, warning the world and "more importantly, the USA is watching."

"Apologise and resign," Iran's moderate Etemad daily wrote in a banner headline on Sunday, saying the "people's demand" was for those responsible for mishandling the plane crisis to quit.

All 176 people aboard the flight, many of them Iranians with dual citizenship, were killed.

Protests erupted after Saturday's admission that the military accidentally shot down the Ukraine International Airlines plane minutes after take off on Wednesday, when Iranian forces were alert for US reprisals after tit-for-tat strikes.

For days, Iranian officials had vigorously denied it was to blame, even as Canada, which had 57 citizens on the flight, and the United States said their intelligence indicated an Iranian missile was to blame, albeit probably fired in error.

Iran's president said it was a "disastrous mistake" and apologised. But a top Revolutionary Guards commander added to public anger about the delayed admission, when he said he had told the authorities a missile hit the plane the day it crashed.

Challenges

Another moderate daily Jomhuri-ye Eslami, or Islamic Republic, wrote in an editorial: "Those who delayed publishing the reason behind the plane crash and damaged people's trust in the establishment should be dismissed or should resign."

Criticism of the authorities in Iran is not unusual, but it tends to stay in narrow boundaries.

The press attacks and protests add to challenges facing the establishment, which in November faced the country's bloodiest unrest since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

As Saturday's protests spread across Iran, including major cities such as Shiraz, Isfahan, Hamedan and Orumiyeh, US President Donald Trump said on Twitter: "We are following your protests closely, and are inspired by your courage."

"There can not be another massacre of peaceful protesters, nor an internet shutdown. The world is watching," he said, posting his tweets in both Farsi and English.

Britain said its ambassador in Iran had been briefly detained on Saturday by the authorities in Tehran. A news agency said he was detained outside a university for inciting protests.

Condemning the arrest, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Iran "can continue its march towards pariah status ... or take steps to de-escalate tensions and engage in a diplomatic path forwards."

Protests inside Iran followed a build up of tension between Iran and the United States, which withdrew from Tehran's nuclear pact with world powers in 2018 and then re-imposed sanctions that have steadily crippled the Iranian economy.

'Horrific'

On Jan. 3, a US drone strike in Iraq killed prominent Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, responsible for building up Iran's network of regional proxy armies in Iraq and beyond, and Tehran responded with missile strikes on US targets in Iraq.

No US soldiers were killed, but in the tense hours after that, the Ukrainian Boeing 737 was cleared to take off from Tehran airport and then brought down by a missile fired in error by an operator who mistook the plane for an attacker.

"Shooting down a civilian aircraft is horrific. Iran must take full responsibility," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.

Trudeau said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had committed to collaborating with Canadian investigators, working to de-escalate tensions in the region and continuing a dialogue.

Rallying to the establishment, Iranian lawmakers praised the elite force's commanders for courage in admitting the error, according to Fars, a news agency seen as close to the Guards, a parallel military set up to protect the theocratic system.

Iranian officials sought to portray the plane disaster as a second blow to a mourning nation after Soleimani's death in a US drone strike.

Soleimani's funeral had prompted huge public gatherings, which the authorities described a show of national unity. But the displays of emotion have been swiftly overshadowed and protesters on Saturday tore up pictures of the slain general.

Public fury at Iran's authorities had grown as questions about the plane crash mounted. Iranians on social media asked why officials were busy fending off criticism from abroad rather than sympathising with grieving families. 

Others asked why the plane was allowed to take off at a time of high tension.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies