Iran has admitted publicly that its military "unintentionally" shot down a Ukrainian jetliner, culminating days of intense back-and-forth between the U.S. and Iran as the two nations volley threats and accusations at one another.
The statement came Saturday morning and blamed “human error” for the shootdown on Wednesday that killed 176 people.
The jetliner, a Boeing 737 operated by Ukraine International Airlines, went down on the outskirts of Tehran during takeoff just hours after Iran launched a barrage of missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq.
A military statement carried by Iranian state media said the plane was mistaken for a “hostile target” after it turned toward a “sensitive military center” of the Revolutionary Guard. The military was at its “highest level of readiness,” it said, amid the heightened tensions with the United States .
“In such a condition, because of human error and in a unintentional way, the flight was hit,” the statement said. It apologized for the disaster and said it would upgrade its systems to prevent future tragedies.
It also said those responsible for the strike on the plane would be prosecuted.
The plane crashed Wednesday just hours after Iran fired ballistic missiles at two U.S. military bases in Iraq. That assault came in retaliation for the Pentagon's killing in a drone strike of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran's most senior and revered military commanders.
The Trump administration said Soleimani had been planning an "imminent" attack against U.S. citizens.
Iran had deniey for several days that a missile downed the aircraft .But then the U.S. and Canada, citing intelligence, said they believe Iran shot down the aircraft.
The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, at least 63 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials.
“This is the right step for the Iranian government to admit responsibility, and it gives people a step toward closure with this admission,” said Payman Parseyan, a prominent Iranian-Canadian in western Canada who lost a number of friends in the crash.
“I think the investigation would have disclosed it whether they admitted it or not. This will give them an opportunity to save face.”
On Friday, the Trump administration had said it suspected an Iranian missile caused the crash of the passenger jet. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a news conference that the missile strike was the most likely scenario and probably involved some type of mistake on Iran's part.
Also on Friday,Ukrainian officials gained access to the plane's "black box " recorder, according to Iulia Mendel, spokeswoman for Ukraine's president. Recovery of the black box, which records data from the flight and voices from the cockpit, is considered a key step in reconstructing the final moments of any air crash.
Iran's official IRNA news agency reported that the box, made of hardened material capable of withstanding intense flame, explosions and impact, would be opened Friday. But the process of downloading the information could take up to two months.
An investigation into the cause of the crash is ongoing. If evidence shows that the Iranian missile did, in fact, take down the plane, then the U.S. "and the world will take appropriate actions in response," Pompeo said.
"We do believe that it is likely that that plane was shot down by an Iranian missile. We’re going to let that investigation play out," Pompeo said.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, speaking at the news conference, announced an array of new sanctions on Iran, including measures against eight senior administration officials. He also said the department will waive the sanctions for anyone who can help with the plane crash investigation, allowing investigators to participate in accordance with U.S. sanctions law.
Until Saturday, Iran had vehemently rejected any suggestion that the plane was brought down by one of its own missiles. The nation urged American and Canadian investigators Friday to share any information they have on the plane crash.
"What is obvious for us, and what we can say with certainty, is that no missile hit the plane," Ali Abedzadeh, head of Iran’s national aviation department, told a press conference in Tehran on Friday.
Contributing: Associated Press