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Iran: Rescuers locate wreckage of President Raisi’s crashed helicopter

Heavy fog and rain complicate search efforts, as rescuers move towards crash site amid reduced visibility
People in Tehran pray for the well-being of Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi following the crash of a helicopter carrying him, 19 May 2024 (Wana/Handout/Reuters)
By MEE correspondent in Tehran

Search and rescue teams located Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi's crashed helicopter in the early hours of Monday, according to the Iranian Red Crescent, as hope faded that the passengers have survived.

“We can see the wreckage and the situation does not look good,” the head of Iran’s Red Crescent, Pirhossein Kolivand, told state TV.

The Red Crescent did not provide information on whether the president and his companions, including the foreign minister, had survived or not. 

Iran has been frantically searching for the wreckage after the president's helicopter crashed on Sunday while crossing mountainous terrain.

The area of Iran's East Azerbaijan province was covered in thick fog, with temperatures plummeting overnight and the heavy rain turning into snowfall.

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Hours after midnight, a Turkish drone identified a source of heat suspected to be the helicopter's wreckage and shared the coordinates with Iranian authorities, Anadolu news agency said on X.

The Red Crescent said 73 rescue teams, including detector dogs, have been sent to the area, in the middle of a mountain forest, spotted by the Turkish drone. It added that weather conditions remain difficult, with rain and thick fog reducing visibility and slowing down the movement towards the coordinates.

Iranian state media blamed weather conditions for the crash, which took place near the city of Jolfa, some 600km northwest of Tehran.

Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, East Azerbaijan Governor Malek Rahmati and Mohammad Ali Ale-Hashem, the representative of the Iranian supreme leader to the province, were reportedly in the same helicopter as Raisi.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed concern about the crash, but reassured Iranians that there would be no disruption to state affairs. Raisi's personal Instagram page asked for people's prayers.

Meanwhile, various state-backed media outlets have released conflicting information.

During the evening, state TV reported that Raisi's helicopter had been found - which was then denied by the Red Crescent. 

This video grab shows Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi on board a helicopter in the Jolfa region of the western province of East Azerbaijan, 19 May 2024 (IRINN/AFP)
This video grab shows Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi on board a helicopter in the Jolfa region of the western province of East Azerbaijan, 19 May 2024 (IRINN/AFP)

Later, Deputy Foreign Minister Mahdi Safari said contact was made with Ale-Hashem, who he said reported not feeling well and saying he could hear the sound of ambulances.

However, a Republican Guard commander later told state-run media that reports contact had been made with Raisi's companions were incorrect.

A Republican Guard commander in East Azerbaijan told Tasnim news agency that a signal was received from the helicopter and a mobile phone at the site, adding that military forces have been sent to the area.

An unnamed Iranian official told Reuters that the lives of Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian were "at risk following the crash". 

"We are still hopeful but information coming from the crash site is very concerning," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Raisi, 63, visited the East Azerbaijan province on Sunday to inaugurate a dam project with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliev, on the border between the two countries.

A former air force commander in Iran's Revolutionary Guard told Middle East Eye that the helicopters used by the country's officials were around 30 years old

Rescuers hampered by weather

The suspected crash site is in rugged, remote and difficult-to-access terrain.

As darkness fell, the rescue operation got increasingly difficult and risky. Rescue workers were approaching the site on foot and avoiding travel by car, due to unpaved roads and the rain making the grounds muddy and impassible, state television reported.

Iran’s Red Crescent said it had lost contact with three members of the search and rescue teams because of bad weather.

Rescue vehicles are seen following a crash of a helicopter carrying Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi, in Varzaqan , East Azerbaijan Province, Iran, 19 May 2024 (AFP)
Rescue vehicles are seen following a crash of a helicopter carrying Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi, in Varzaqan , East Azerbaijan Province, Iran, 19 May 2024 (AFP)

An emergency service spokesperson earlier told Tasnim that an emergency air ambulance was dispatched to the area, "but unfortunately, due to heavy fog, further aerial operations were not possible".

Azerbaijan, Iraq, Qatar, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey have offered assistance in the search and rescue operation.

A Turkish diplomatic source told MEE that Iran asked Turkey for assistance. Turkey's disaster management agency AFAD said Tehran requested a night vision search-and-rescue helicopter, adding that 32 mountaineer personnel and six vehicles have been dispatched to Iran.

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Saudi Arabia said it was following the reports "with great concern", and was ready to provide any assistance required.

The European Union said it had activated its rapid response mapping service to help search for the helicopter upon Iranian request.

State media aired footage of prayers being held for Raisi's safety across the country. The president, a conservative and ideological ally of Khamenei, has been in office since 2021.

Speaking to Mehr news agency, the head of Iran's relief and rescue organisation asked Iranians to follow the news on official media and "under no circumstances go to the area to avoid interference with the rescue operation".

State media also reported that the Iranian government cancelled a planned cabinet meeting and instead convened an emergency meeting with its crisis management committee.

According to the Iranian constitution, in the event of the death, dismissal or resignation of the president, or an absence or illness lasting more than two months, the vice president, with the approval of Iran's supreme leader, is to assume the president’s responsibilities.

A council consisting of the parliamentary speaker, the head of the judiciary and the vice president is then required to arrange the election of a new president within a maximum period of 50 days.

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