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Iran's judiciary says arrests made over airliner downing as protests continue

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says everyone responsible for the plane crash must be punished for the incident
The air disaster claimed the lives of all 176 passengers and crew on board, most of them Iranians and Canadians (AFP)

Iran announced on Tuesday that arrests have been made over the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger jet in Tehran last week, without specifying how many, as anti-government demonstrations triggered by the disaster entered a fourth day.

"Extensive investigations have been carried out and some people have been arrested," judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili told a televised news conference.

The arrests are the first to have been announced since the Ukraine International Airlines plane was brought down by a missile shortly after takeoff from Tehran before dawn on Wednesday.

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After initially denying claims it was shot down, Iran admitted on Saturday that flight 752 had been accidentally brought down by a missile.

The Revolutionary Guard aerospace commander Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh accepted full responsibility, but said the missile operator who opened fire had been acting independently.

The judiciary spokesman said numerous lines of investigations are being explored with those involved seeking documents late into the night.

"Suggestions have been made so far but we have to weigh all the dimensions to get to the truth," he added.

'Unforgivable error'

The air disaster and subsequent unrest comes amid one of the biggest escalations between Tehran and Washington since the revolution four decades ago that made them into foes.

In a step that will increase diplomatic pressure, Britain, France and Germany launched a dispute mechanism on Tuesday to challenge Iran for breaching limits on its nuclear programme under an agreement which Washington abandoned in 2018.

Tit-for-tat military strikes began with missiles launched at a US base that killed an American contractor in late December, and reached their climax when Washington killed Qassem Soleimani, the architect of Iran's regional network of proxy militias, in a drone strike in Baghdad on 3 January.

Esmaili's statement came shortly after Iran President Hassan Rouhani said everyone responsible for the plane's downing must be punished for the incident that has sparked angry protests in Iranian cities.

Rouhani promised a thorough investigation into the "unforgivable error" of shooting down the plane, giving a television address on Tuesday, the latest in a series of apologies from a leadership that rarely admits mistakes.

"Iranian armed forces admitting their mistake is a good first step," Rouhani said.

The air disaster claimed the lives of all 176 passengers and crew on board, most of them Iranians and Canadians.

Protesters arrested

Protesters gathered for a fourth day in Tehran on Tuesday to demonstrate against the way the authorities have handled the downing of the plane, videos posted on social media showed.

"Where is justice?" a crowd chanted at one university in the capital, one of the videos showed. Middle East Eye was not immediately able to verify the footage.

Protesters, with students at the forefront, have held demonstrations against the establishment since Saturday, some met by a violent police crackdown.

Video from inside Iran has shown wounded people being carried, pools of blood on the streets and the sound of gunfire. The overall level of unrest is difficult to assess because of restrictions on independent reporting.

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In recent days, demonstrators have chanted "Clerics get lost!" and other slogans against Iran's system of theocratic rule. 

"Death to Khamenei," others shouted, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader for more than 30 years.

Riot police have beaten some demonstrators with batons, social media posts show.

The most recent video posted on social media showed protesters gathered into the night in Tehran and other cities, and burning images of Soleimani.

Esmaili said Iran's judiciary has arrested around 30 protesters who took to the streets for "taking part in illegal gatherings", according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency.

Iranian authorities are accused of killing hundreds of demonstrators in a crackdown two months ago, in what was probably the worst anti-government unrest since the 1979 revolution. 

Across the region, governments that include armed Iran-allied factions have also faced months of hostile mass demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon.

'Chop him to small pieces'

Esmaili said on Tuesday that Britain's ambassador to Tehran was an "undesirable element" after Iranian officials accused him of attending an illegal protest despite his denials.

Iran's foreign ministry, which summoned him, would be responsible for announcing any move to expel Rob Macaire, who has been in the post since 2018.

A prominent Iranian cleric also said expelling the ambassador would be "the best thing that can happen to him" as otherwise loyal supporters of Soleimani would "chop him to small pieces," Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda said, in remarks carried by Eslahat news website.

Alamolhoda is the leader of Friday prayers in the eastern holy city of Mashhad.

Macaire was briefly detained on Saturday, which Iranian officials said was because he attended an illegal demonstration, which took place over the downing of the passenger plane.

The ambassador said he had attended a vigil for victims of the crash, while London said his detention was a violation of diplomat conventions.

Canada not informed

Ukraine's foreign minister said "grieving nations," five of the countries whose citizens were killed when the airliner was shot down, would meet on Thursday.

"We will meet in person in London to discuss the ways, including legal, how we are following this up," Vadym Prystaiko said on Monday.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose nation had at least 57 citizens on the flight, told Global News TV that victims would still be alive and at home with their families now if there had been no tensions in the region.

According to a transcript, Trudeau said Canada did not receive a heads up before the US killed Soleimani.

"The US makes its determinations. We attempt to work as an international community on big issues. But sometimes countries take actions without informing their allies," he said.

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