January 15, 2020
By Babak Dehghanpisheh and Parisa Hafezi
DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranians buried their dead from an airliner shot down by the military as authorities on Wednesday identified more of the 176 victims of last week’s crash, which led to days of rage against Iran’s rulers followed by a police crackdown.
Emotions have been running high as the victims of the Jan. 8 crash are mourned. The national flag was ripped from the coffin of one victim when relatives collected the body and the mother shouted “Tear it off,” an online video post showed.
Protesters took to the streets of Iranian cities for four days after the armed forces finally acknowledged on Saturday, after days of denials, that they had brought down the plane. In several places, demonstrators met a fierce police response.
Iranians on social media called for more protests on Wednesday but there was no sign of the kind of rallies of previous days. Instead videos showed riot police massed outside universities, the focal point for demonstrations.
In earlier protests, footage showed police beating protesters, sounds of gunshots, teargas and blood on the ground.
The full scale of the unrest and the crackdown is difficult to determine because of restrictions on independent reporting.
Police denied opening fire and said officers were told to act with restraint. But just two months ago, a crackdown on protests caused by fuel price rises killed hundreds of people.
“The government sees itself under siege from all sides right now and is not going to allow any protest to snowball into a nationwide movement,” said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group.
Iran is battling several fronts. A new international crisis has erupted over its nuclear program, the economy is in tatters under U.S. sanctions and a long-running standoff with the United States briefly spiraled into open conflict.
The plane was downed by air defenses when the armed forces were on high alert for U.S. reprisals, hours after Iran launched missiles against U.S. targets in Iraq in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian commander on Jan. 3.
Most of those on Ukraine International Airlines flight 752, bound for Kiev, were Iranians or dual citizens, many of them students returning to their studies abroad or families on their way home after seeing relatives in Iran.
The head of the coroner’s office in Tehran said 123 of the 176 victims had been identified, ILNA news agency reported.
Several victims were buried in the sprawling Behesht-e Zahra cemetery south of Tehran, while others would be transferred abroad, Iranian media said.
On Thursday, Canada, Ukraine, Britain and other nations who had citizens on the downed plane meet in London to discuss legal action against Iran, Ukraine has said.
The military and top officials apologized for the “unforgivable error” in bringing the plane down and said it would prosecute those to blame. The judiciary said people had been arrested who were accused of having a role in the disaster.
But the government has also sought to galvanize loyalists at home. A state-sponsored body has called for rallies on Friday to show support for the leadership and to commemorate “martyrs” of the plane disaster, Iranian media reported.
Iran has also been fending off international pressure over its nuclear ambitions. On Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani dismissed the idea of a new agreement to resolve the nuclear row, as proposed by U.S. President Donald Trump and described by Britain’s prime minister as a “Trump deal.”
Rouhani said Trump, who quit an existing nuclear pact in 2018, always broke his promises.
Tehran has repeatedly said it would not hold talks while under U.S. sanctions, reimposed as part of Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran aimed at pushing Tehran into a new deal that would put stricter limits on its nuclear work, curb its missile program and end its role in regional conflicts.
The commander killed in the Jan. 3 drone strike, Qassem Soleimani, was responsible for building up Iran’s proxy militias abroad that created an arch of influence across the Middle East.
(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh and Parisa Hafezi and the London bureau, Writing by Edmund Blair, Editing by Peter Graff and Timothy Heritage)