Protests Erupt in Iran after Military Admits Downing Ukrainian Passenger Jet: "Death to the Dictator"

Protesters in Iran are demanding that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei steps down, after the country's military admitted to accidentally downing a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing all 176 people on board.

Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 crashed shortly after leaving Imam Khomeini International Airport in the Iranian capital of Tehran on Wednesday. It came days after President Donald Trump ordered a drone strike in Iraq to kill Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, on January 3, escalating tensions between the countries.

On Saturday afternoon, thousands of people gathered in Tehran's main squares as meetings organized on social media to mourn the dead transformed into protests against the military's mistake, The New York Times reported. Chants in videos seen on social media by the newspaper included "Death to liars!", "Death to the dictator!" and "You have no shame."

An angry crowd in front of Amir Kabir university in the city appeared to chant "Commander-in-chief (Khamenei) resign, resign" in a video, according to Reuters. The news agency said it could not verify the authenticity of the video footage.

The semi-official Iranian Fars News Agency, which is linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, demanded those responsible be held accountable, and said the shortcomings of the country's leaders had made the "tragedy twice as bitter," according to The New York Times.

Earlier in the day, angry Iranians took to social media to ask why civilians had become the victims of their country's "harsh revenge," according to The New York Times. Following the death of the top military commander, Iranian officials pledged to exact vengeance against the U.S.. Last week, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promised harsh revenge against the "criminals" who killed Soleimani, Reuters reported. The Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations Majid Takht Ravanchi made a similar threat in an interview with CNN last week, as did Abdollah Araghi, a senior commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, on Thursday, The New York Times reported citing Iran's Tasnim news agency.

Freelance journalist Mojtaba Fathi tweeted, according to a translation: "They were supposed to take their harsh revenge against America, not the people."

Iran had initially denied reports that one if its missiles hit the aircraft. But on Thursday, U.S. officials told Newsweek they suspected that Iran's anti-aircraft systems had struck the Ukrainian flight, accidentally killing the passengers and crew on board. Of those killed, 82 were Iranian, 63 were Canadian and 11 were Ukrainian, 10 were Swedish, seven were Afghan, and three were German nationals.

On Saturday morning, Iran's military said, in a statement published by the official IRNA news agency that an investigation had revealed it had in fact downed the Ukrainian passenger jet "unintentionally, due to human error."

It explained its airforce defense units were on high alert after Soleimani's death. In "such a sensitive and critical situation" the Ukrainian aircraft had "moved very close to a sensitive military spot" belonging to Iran's Revolutionary Guards. The "altitude and the direction of the flight's movement were like an enemy target," the statement read.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani tweeted on Saturday: "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."

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A child's shoe is pictured on January 8, 2020 at the scene of a Ukrainian airliner that crashed shortly after take-off near Imam Khomeini airport in the Iranian capital Tehran. Getty Images/BORNA GHASSEMI/ISNA/AFP