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Russia says Iran shot down passenger plane after US jets were sent to its borders

Oliver Carroll
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gestures as he speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow: Reuters

Iran shot down a commercial plane, killing all 176 crew and passengers, because it was spooked by “six F-35 US fighter jets” near its borders, Russia’s top diplomat has said.

“This information needs verification, but I’d like to emphasise the nervousness that always accompanies such situations,” Russia’s acting foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said on Friday during his annual press conference, in response to a question from The Independent.

“It was a human mistake. Everyone understands that.”

The long-serving minister agreed with Iran’s argument that the loss of life was the direct consequence of the US escalating hostilities between the nations when it killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.

“This act went beyond the realm of international, legal, and simply human, understandings,” he said.

The US decision to assassinate Soleimani on 3 January was followed five days later by retaliatory missile attacks on American airbases in Iraq.

As the passenger plane prepared to take off on 8 January, Tehran was on high alert for the possibility of a second attack. Incredibly, however, local authorities made the fateful decision not to close civilian airspace. At 6.14am, just two minutes after take-off, the Ukraine International Airlines plane stopped sending all data.

It was clear even without later satellite intelligence that a catastrophic incident had occurred. Iran insisted there had been a technical issue. Faulty engines, however – even those on fire – do not take out entire systems. Images of rocket debris, and footage appearing to show a missile strike, offered even clearer evidence of foul play.

Tehran took almost four days to admit that its anti-aircraft systems had mistaken the plane and shot it down in error.

Up until Mr Lavrov’s press conference on Friday, Moscow appeared to support Iran’s previous position.

Speaking on 10 January – the morning after the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, confirmed that US intelligence showed Iran to have launched a missile strike, but before Tehran made its admission – Russia’s acting deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said he was certain there were “no grounds” to make “loud” statements.

Mr Lavrov initially denied his foreign ministry had made any statement backing the Iranian position.

Iran’s eventual disclosure seemed to come as a surprise to Moscow, which has so far taken a very different approach to its own missile problem. A significant body of evidence now links Russia to the Buk anti-aircraft system that brought down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) over the Donbass region of Ukraine in July 2014, with the loss of nearly 300 lives.

The independent team set up to investigate the incident concluded that the missile system was delivered from a unit of the Russian army in Kursk.

Russian commentators have made obvious comparisons between the Iranian and Russian responses to their respective disasters, but the most interesting comments came from Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of Kremlin-funded TV news network RT. She suggested that Iran’s actions showed them to be “real men … unlike other countries … including [Russia]”.

Mr Lavrov fudged The Independent’s question as to whether he agreed with Ms Simonyan’s analysis, declining to accept Russian responsibility for MH17.

He also discounted the findings of the independent commission because Russia “hadn’t been included in the investigation”.

In an otherwise low-key press conference, Mr Lavrov used most of the time to deliver a pointed criticism of the west, and the US in particular, for “undermining international security”.

He said Moscow would act to mitigate future “escalation … wherever it came from”. He would not be drawn on the subject of where Russia’s next focus might be. Quoting Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia’s aphorism-loving former prime minister, Mr Lavrov said it was difficult to make predictions, “especially when they concern the future”.

Mr Lavrov also answered speculation about his own future, ahead of an impending governmental shake-up. The 70-year-old has long been rumoured as wanting to leave, but Vladimir Putin is understood to be reluctant to part with the vastly experienced minister.

“Three days ago, I was asked to continue to carry out my duties,” he said. “And I carry them out.”

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