Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has defended the country’s military after it admitted shooting down a passenger plane by mistake.
He said the Revolutionary Guard – the elite unit responsible for the disaster – “maintained the security” of Iran.
Widespread protests and criticism from abroad have put growing pressure on Iran over its handling of the incident.
But the ayatollah tried to rally support as he led Friday prayers in Tehran for the first time since 2012.
He called for “national unity” and said Iran’s “enemies” – a reference to Washington and its allies – had used the shooting down of the plane to overshadow the killing of senior Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike.
“Millions in Iran and thousands in Iraq mourned [Soleimani],” he said.
The Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 was travelling to Kyiv from Tehran on 8 January when it crashed shortly after take-off. All 176 passengers on board, including dozens of Iranians and Canadians, were killed.
The Iranian authorities initially denied responsibility but, after international pressure mounted, the hardline Revolutionary Guard admitted that the plane had been mistaken for a “cruise missile” during heightened tensions with the US.
Hours before it was shot down, and in response to the killing of Soleimani, Iranian missiles targeted two airbases in Iraq that housed US forces. Washington initially said no US troops had been injured but it later said 11 people had been…