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This handout photograph taken and released on January 11, 2019, by The National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, shows people standing and analysing the fragments and remains of the Ukraine International Airlines plane Boeing 737-800 that crashed outside the Iranian capital Tehran on January 8, 2020.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Iran’s senior leaders are apologizing for a “disastrous mistake” after admitting that the Iranian military shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing 176 people on board, including 57 Canadians.

“Our profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations,” Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a tweet on Saturday.

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He called it “a sad day”, but he also insisted that the shootdown was a result of “human error” during a crisis “caused by U.S. adventurism.” The plane was shot down several hours after Iran had fired missiles at U.S. and coalition military bases in Iraq in retaliation for the U.S. assassination of Iranian military commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

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The statement was a reversal of earlier statements from Iranian authorities denying a missile was to blame. Iran had earlier suggested mechanical failure was to the cause

Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 was heading to Kyiv on Wednesday morning when it crashed on the outskirts of Tehran, shortly after takeoff.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Saturday said Iran must take ‘full responsibility’ for the downed flight. He said he spoke with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and demanded that Canada have involvement in a complete investigation into the crash.

Mr. Rouhani said the shootdown of the aircraft was “horrific” and a “great tragedy and unforgivable mistake.”

In a tweet on Saturday, he promised that those responsible for the shootdown would be prosecuted. Investigations are continuing to identify those responsible, he said.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake. My thoughts and prayers go to all the mourning families. I offer my sincerest condolences.”

Iran's civil aviation chief Ali Abedzadeh delivers a press statement in Tehran.

-/AFP/Getty Images

Likewise, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, expressed his “deep sympathy” to the families of the victims and called on the armed forces to “pursue probable shortcomings and guilt in the painful incident."

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A senior officer of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, speaking on state television on Saturday, said an air defence operator had mistaken the Ukrainian passenger jet for a cruise missile.

Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, head of the aerospace division at the elite military unit, said the military had requested a no-fly order to prohibit flights by all aircraft on Wednesday, including civilian aircraft, but it was not approved. He did not explain why the government had failed to approve the requested order.

Gen. Hajizadeh said he accepted full responsibility for the shootdown. “I wish I was dead and such an incident hadn’t happened,” he said in a video posted online by Iranian state television on Saturday.

“We were at that time ready for an all-out war with the United States. We had reports of cruise missiles fired at Iran. The air defence operator sent a message to his commanders, but after he didn’t receive any response for 10 seconds, he decided to shoot it down.”

The aerospace commander said he had informed Iran’s top military officials on Wednesday morning that the Ukrainian plane crash was probably caused by his forces. “But the General Staff of the Armed Forces quarantined all those who knew about it, and decided to declare it later.”

In an a press conference in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, Ihor Sosnovskyi, the vice-president of Ukrainian International Airlines, blamed Iran for not closing the country’s airspace on a night it was firing ballistic missiles at U.S. military targets in neighbouring Iraq.

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“If you’re playing at war, play all you want. But if you are planning on shooting at someone you must close your airspace,” Mr. Sosnovskyi said.

Asked why Flight 752 was allowed to take off, Mr. Sosnovskyi pointed out that planes departed from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport before and after the Ukrainian Airlines plane, and that they had received no warnings about the military activity earlier that night.

Yevhen Dykhne, the airline’s chief executive officer, said that if Iran and the other involved countries agreed, UIA was willing to fly the remains of the victims to Kyiv, and then deliver them to victims’ families.

The news comes shortly after Canada had announced that countries that lost citizens in the crash had united to create a task force to share information and push for credible answers on what happened.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne told reporters Friday night Ottawa is anxious to deploy officials on the ground, but that as of his Friday evening only two visas to enter Iran had been received. A team of 10 officials from the department of Global Affairs is standing by in Ankara, waiting for admission to Iran so they can help identify victims and provide consular services. As well, two Transportation Safety Board investigators are en route to Ankara, where they await permission to enter Iran to inspect the crash site and review evidence.

“There remains 10 visas that we need,” Mr. Champagne said.

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He said the federal government is pushing for a more active role for the Canadian investigators so they can do more than observe in Tehran, including examining Flight 752’s black-box flight recorder. “I hope the government of Iran welcomes our offer."

In Twitter messages on Saturday, angry Iranians asked why the plane was allowed to take off with tensions in Iran so high.

Video clips on social media from outside a university in Tehran showed students chanting “Death to the dictator” in protest at the government’s handling of the plane crash. Iran’s leadership faced mass protests in November.

In a Twitter statement, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he has spoken Saturday with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and told him Iran needed to punish whoever shot down Flight 752, and enable the bodies of the victims to be returned to Ukraine.

“Acknowledging plane shot down is a step in the right direction. I insist on immediately completing identification of the bodies & their return to Ukraine. The perpetrators must be held accountable,” Mr. Zelensky wrote. “We look forward to further legal & technical cooperation”

A senior Trump administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Iran had made an “awful mistake”, adding that “Iran’s reckless actions have again had devastating consequences”.

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Iran’s admission was “an important first step” and that it was “vital that all leaders now pursue a diplomatic way forward” to avoid conflict.

Thomas Juneau, a Middle East expert at the University of Ottawa and a former analyst at the Department of National Defence, said he was surprised at Iran’s reversal on the cause of the plane crash. “I didn’t expect Iran to be so honest, so fast,” he said in a tweet.

“Presumably its leaders assessed that if it is so obvious this was the case, to deny reality would have just prolonged the pain (not that they haven’t stubbornly continued down a costly path before).”

With files from Anton Skyba in Kyiv, Reuters and The Associated Press

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