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Iran police disperse student protest after tribute to air crash victims

UK envoy arrested at protest as students denounce 'liars' and demand prosecution of those responsible for downing plane and initial cover-up
Iranian students protest after tribute for airline disaster victims at Amir Kabir University in capital Tehran on Saturday (AFP)

Iranian police dispersed students chanting slogans on Saturday during a gathering in Tehran to honour the 176 people killed when a Ukrainian airliner was mistakenly shot down.

Iran's semi-official Fars news agency, in a rare report on anti-government unrest, said protesters in Tehran chanted “radical” slogans against the nation's top authorities, after the powerful Revolutionary Guards admitted shooting down the passenger plane, Reuters said.

AFP correspondents said hundreds of students had gathered early in the evening at Amir Kabir University in downtown Tehran to pay respects to those killed in the air disaster. The tribute later turned into an angry demonstration.

The students chanted slogans denouncing "liars" and demanded the resignation and prosecution of those responsible for downing the plane and an initial cover-up.

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The Fars report said the demonstrators also ripped up pictures of Qassem Soleimani, the prominent commander of the Guard's Quds Force who was killed in a US drone strike. The agency, widely seen as close to the Guards, carried pictures of the gathering and a torn banner of Soleimani.

The BBC reported that the UK's ambassador to Iran was briefly arrested during the demonstrations. Rob Macaire was held for more than an hour, according to local media, which said he had been accused of inciting anti-government protests.

The UK's Foreign Office described Macaire's arrest as a "flagrant violation of international law". The UK said four Britons were on board the Ukrainian plane.

The US called on Iran to apologise for detaining the British ambassador. "This violates the Vienna Convention, which the regime has a notorious history of violating. We call on the regime to formally apologize to the UK for violating his rights and to respect the rights of all diplomats," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus tweeted.

Iran said on Saturday that the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 was "unintentionally" shot down on Wednesday shortly after taking off from Tehran's main airport.

All 176 people on board died, mostly Iranians and Canadians and including many students.

Fars published pictures of demonstrators gathered around a ring of candles during the tribute.

It said that police "dispersed" them as they left the university and blocked the streets, causing a traffic jam.

Iran's acknowledgement on Saturday that the plane had been shot down in error came after officials had for days categorically denied western claims that it had been struck by a missile.

The aerospace commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards accepted full responsibility.

Still, Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh said the missile operator acted independently, shooting down the Boeing 737 after mistaking it for a "cruise missile".