Demonstrators attend a ceremony for the victims of the Ukrainian plane crash

UK ambassador to Iran summoned following arrest at anti-government protest

176 people were killed when the plane was shot down earlier this week.

LAST UPDATE | Jan 12th 2020, 3:06 PM

THE UK’S AMBASSADOR to Iran has been summoned to explain his “illegal and inappropriate presence” at an anti-government protest, the Iranian foreign ministry has said.

Rob Macaire was called in to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after being arrested by police on Saturday as demonstrations broke out in Tehran over the downing of a Ukrainian airliner by Iranian forces.

The move threatened to further escalate the diplomatic row between London and Tehran after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab denounced Macaire’s detention as a “flagrant violation” of international law.

Dozens of Iranian hard-liners were reported to have gathered outside the British embassy, chanting “death to England” and calling for the ambassador to be expelled.

But earlier, he denied taking part in protests in the country following his arrest near the scene of a demonstration in Tehran last night.

Hundreds gathered in the Iranian capital last night to protest after the Islamic republic admitted that it shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane this week.

Iranian police dispersed hundreds of students who gathered in the country’s capital chanting slogans to honour those killed when the Ukrainian Airlines jet was mistakenly shot down on Wednesday.

The tribute turned into an angry demonstration when students began denouncing “liars” and demanding the resignation and prosecution of those responsible for downing the plane, as well as their alleged cover-up of events afterwards.

The protests came the same day that Iran admitted to unintentionally downing the aircraft, killing all 176 people aboard, after days denying claims the plane was struck by a missile.

The crash happened shortly after Iran launched missiles at bases hosting American forces in Iraq in response to the killing of Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s top generals, in a US drone strike late last week.

Iranian officials initially blamed the crash on a mechanical failure.

Iranian authorities arrested the UK’s ambassador Macaire during the protest, but he was later released.

Iran’s Mehr news agency said the ambassador was arrested for his alleged “involvement in provoking suspicious acts” at the gathering in front of the university. However, Macaire denied that he took part in a demonstration.

“Can confirm I wasn’t taking part in any demonstrations! Went to an event advertised as a vigil for victims of #PS752 tragedy,” Macaire said on Twitter, adding he had been detained for half an hour.

“Normal to want to pay respects — some of victims were British. I left after 5 mins, when some started chanting,” he said.

“Arresting diplomats is of course illegal, in all countries,” he added.

The UK’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also criticised the detention of Macaire. “The arrest of our ambassador in Tehran without grounds or explanation is a flagrant violation of international law,” he said in a statement.

Ambassador provoked ‘radical acts’

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump  warned Iran that he would continue to monitor the demonstrations closely, saying he stood with those protesting in the country.

Following the demonstrations, Trump told Iran – in tweets in both English and Farsi – that he stands by protestors and was monitoring events in Tehran.

“To the brave, long-suffering people of Iran: I’ve stood with you since the beginning of my presidency, and my administration will continue to stand with you,” he tweeted.

“There can not be another massacre of peaceful protesters, nor an internet shutdown. The world is watching,” he added, apparently referring to previous protests in November.

“We are following your protests closely, and are inspired by your courage,” he said.

Trump also called on Iran to apologise for the arrest of the UK’s ambassador.

State television reported that students shouted “anti-regime” chants, while Fars reported that posters of General Soleimani had been torn down.

Earlier yesterday, the aerospace commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards accepted full responsibility for Wednesday’s accident.

But Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh said the missile operator acted independently, targeting the plane after mistaking it for a “cruise missile”.

The operator failed to obtain approval from his superiors because of disruptions to a communications system, he said.

“He had ten seconds to decide. He could have decided to strike or not to strike and under such circumstances, he took the wrong decision.”

The majority of passengers on the plane were Iranians and Canadians, including dual nationals, while Ukrainians, Afghans, Britons and Swedes were also aboard.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani told his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky yesterday that “all the persons involved in this air disaster will be brought to justice”.

- © AFP 2020

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