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Iran denies 'cover-up' over shot down Ukrainian airliner

Iranians reportedly holding third day of demonstrations against government as Tehran's police chief denies officers fired on protesters
Iranian people gather in Tehran to show their sympathy to the victims of the crash (Reuters)

Iran's government on Monday denied a "cover-up" after it took days for the armed forces to admit a Ukrainian airliner was shot down by mistake last week.

"In these sorrowful days, many criticisms were directed at relevant officials and authorities... some officials were even accused of lying and a cover-up but, in all honesty, that was not the case," government spokesman Ali Rabiei said in remarks aired on state television.

Amid reports of a third day of demonstrations against the government over the downing of the plane, Tehran's police chief also denied on Monday that officers had fired on protesters in the capital on Sunday.

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In a statement carried by the state broadcaster's website on Monday, Hossein Rahimi said: "At protests, police absolutely did not shoot because the capital's police officers have been given orders to show restraint."

Videos posted late on Sunday recorded gunshots in the vicinity of protests in Tehran's Azadi Square. 

Wounded people were being carried and security personnel could be seen running with rifles. 

Other posts showed riot police hitting protesters with batons as people nearby shouted "Don't beat them!"

Footage circulating on social media showed protesters shouting "Death to the dictator," aimed at Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the system of clerical rule.

Middle East Eye could not independently authenticate the footage.

State-affiliated media reported the protests on Saturday and Sunday in Tehran and other cities, without giving such details.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the shooting down of the plane a "disastrous mistake", while a top commander said he had told the authorities on the day of the crash it had been shot down, raising questions about why Iran had initially denied it.

'Clerics get lost'

Video from inside Iran schanting slogans including "Clerics get lost!" outside universities in the city of Isfahan and in Tehran, where riot police were filmed on Monday taking up positions on the streets of the capital in the face of a third day of protests.

"They killed our elites and replaced them with clerics," demonstrators chanted at a protest outside one university, an apparent reference to Iranian students returning to Canada who were among those killed on the flight.

The demonstrations piled further pressure on the leadership after the military admitted it had mistakenly shot down the plane last week, killing 176 people, at a time when Tehran had feared US air strikes.

Five nations whose citizens died when the airliner was shot down by Iranian forces will meet in London on Thursday to discuss possible legal action, Ukraine's foreign minister told Reuters news agency on Monday.

Vadym Prystaiko said the countries would also discuss compensation and an investigation into the incident.

Speaking on the sidelines of an official visit to Singapore, Prystaiko dismissed Iran’s suggestion that the plane with 176 people aboard flew near sensitive military sites as “nonsense”.

He added that Iran has said it would hand over the black box, recovered from the crashed plane, to Ukraine.

'Crocodile tears'

Rabiei on Monday also dismissed tweets by Donald Trump over the weekend voicing support for Iranians, saying the Iranian people would remember the US president had killed top general Qassem Soleimani on 3 January and whose sanctions policy was the reason why many were facing economic challenges, state media said.

Trump, who told Iran's authorities in tweets in Farsi and English not to kill protesters and praised the "great Iranian people", was shedding "crocodile tears" when voicing concern for Iranians, Rabiei said.

The government spokesman also said Britain's ambassador to Iran had acted in a way that was "completely unprofessional and unacceptable", after he was briefly detained near a protest on Saturday. 

Rob Macaire said he was arrested after attending a vigil and had left when it turned political.

Britain denounced the arrest as a “violation of international law”.

On Monday, Britain summoned Iran’s ambassador to express its “strong objections” to Macaire’s arrest, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.

"This was an unacceptable breach of the Vienna Convention and it needs to be investigated," the spokesman said. "We are seeking full assurances from the Iranian government that this will never happen again.”

'I couldn’t care less'

Iran's latest showdown with the US and its allies has come at a precarious time for the authorities in Tehran and their supporters across the Middle East, when sanctions imposed by Trump have caused deep harm to the Iranian economy.

Iranian authorities were accused of killing hundreds of protesters in November in what appears to have been the bloodiest crackdown on anti-government unrest since the 1979 revolution. 

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In Iraq and Lebanon, governments that have the support of Iran-backed armed groups have also faced months of hostile mass demonstrations.

Trump wrote on Twitter late on Sunday that National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien had "suggested today that sanctions and protests have Iran 'choked off', will force them to negotiate."

"Actually, I couldn’t care less if they negotiate. Will be totally up to them but, no nuclear weapons and 'don’t kill your protesters'," he wrote, repeating his earlier tweets making similar calls to the Iranian authorities not to open fire.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his voice sometimes breaking, on Sunday told a vigil for some of those killed in the plane disaster that he would "pursue justice and accountability" for what happened.

Fifty-seven Canadians died in the incident, most of them of Iranian descent, in one of the biggest single losses of life Canada has suffered in 40 years.

Canada's Transportation Safety Board said it had obtained visas for two of its investigators to travel to Iran to take part in the probe into the downing.

'Hypocrisy, lies, injustice and flattery'

On Sunday, Iran's only female Olympic medallist said on social media she had left her homeland because she had had enough of being used by its authorities as a propaganda tool.

Taekwondo champion Kimia Alizadeh, who won a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, implied in an Instagram post that she had moved to Europe.

She wrote on an account she has used for some time, but it was not immediately possible to verify her location.

"No one has invited me to Europe and I haven't been given a tempting offer. But I accept the pain and hardship of homesickness because I didn't want to be part of hypocrisy, lies, injustice and flattery," she said.

Iran’s most popular female actor also bluntly criticised the government on Sunday in a post on Instagram, telling her almost six million followers that “we are not citizens” but “captives”.

Taraneh Alidoosti, who has appeared in an Oscar-nominated film and acclaimed TV dramas, wrote: “I fought this dream for a long time and didn’t want to accept it.

"We are not citizens. We never were. We are captives…”