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President Ebrahim Raisi. Alamy Stock Photo

Five days of mourning declared as Iran’s president found dead at site of helicopter crash

Iranian authorities first raised the alarm yesterday afternoon when they lost contact with Raisi’s helicopter.


IRANIAN PRESIDENT EBRAHIM Raisi has been declared dead after rescue teams found his crashed helicopter in a fog-shrouded western mountain region, sparking mourning in the Islamic republic.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate authority in Iran, declared five days of mourning and assigned vice president Mohammad Mokhber, 68, to assume interim duties ahead of elections within 50 days.

“The servant of the Iranian nation, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi has achieved the highest level of martyrdom while serving the people,” state TV declared, showing pictures of Raisi as a voice recited the Koran.

The ultraconservative Raisi, aged 63, had been in office since 2021, during a time that has seen Iran rocked by mass protests, economic crisis deepened by US sanctions, and armed exchanges with arch enemy Israel.

Condolences came in from Palestinian militant group Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and from Syria, all members of the so-called Axis of Resistance against Israel, at a time of high Middle East tensions over the Gaza conflict.

Supreme leader Khamenei urged Iranians last night, as the search was still ongoing, to “not worry” about the leadership of the Islamic republic, saying “there will be no disruption in the country’s work”.

Khamenei is the head of state in Iran and has the highest political authority. He has the final word in all state affairs.

He has this morning appointed Mohammad Mokhber, first vice president, as the country’s acting president.

Presidential elections should now be arranged within 50 days, according to the constitution.

Killed alongside Raisi were Foreign Minster Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, known for his fierce anti-Israel sentiment and scepticism of the West, and seven others, including the pilot, bodyguards and political and religious officials.

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri has been appointed as acting foreign minister, government spokesman Ali Bahadori Jahromi said on state television.

A black flag was hoisted as a sign of mourning at a major Shiite shrine in city of Qom, south of Tehran.

Iran’s military chief of staff Mohammad Bagheri has ordered a probe into the cause of a helicopter crash, the ISNA news agency reported.

Missing helicopter

Iranian authorities first raised the alarm yesterday afternoon when they lost contact with Raisi’s helicopter as it flew through a fog-shrouded area of the Jolfa region of East Azerbaijan province.

Raisi had earlier met Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev on their common border to inaugurate a dam project.

On the return trip, only two of the three helicopters in his convoy landed in the city of Tabriz, setting off a massive search and rescue effort, with multiple foreign governments soon offering help.

in-this-photo-provided-by-moj-news-agency-rescue-team-members-work-at-the-scene-of-a-crash-of-a-helicopter-carrying-iranian-president-ebrahim-raisi-in-varzaghan-in-northwestern-iran-monday-may-20 In this photo provided by Moj News Agency, rescue team members work at the scene of a crash of a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Rais Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi at first spoke of a “hard landing” and urged citizens to ignore hostile foreign media channels and get their information “only from state television”.

Army, Revolutionary Guard and police officers were involved in the search as Red Crescent teams walked up a hill in the fog and rain as rows of emergency services vehicles waited nearby.

Muslim faithful across the majority Shiite nation started to pray for Raisi and the others who were missing.

As the sun rose today, more than 15 hours after the crash, rescue crews said they had located the destroyed aircraft with nine people on board, said the Tasnim news agency.

“The helicopter has been found,” said Iran’s Red Crescent chief Pirhossein Koolivand. “The situation is not good.”

He later confirmed that “we are in the process of transferring the bodies of the martyrs to Tabriz” and that “the search operations have come to an end”.

State television channel IRIB reported online that the helicopter had “hit a mountain and disintegrated” on impact.

International reaction

The Iranian cabinet vowed that the government’s work will continue “without the slightest disruption” and said that “we assure the loyal nation that the path of service will continue with the tireless spirit of Ayatollah Raisi”, using his clerical title.

Foreign countries had been closely following the search at a time of high regional tensions over the Gaza conflict raging between Israel and Hamas since 7 October.

Expressions of concern and offers of help quickly came from countries including China, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey.

US President Joe Biden was briefed, an American official said on condition of anonymity, and the European Union activated its rapid response mapping service to aid in the search effort.

the-flag-of-iran-lowered-at-its-embassy-during-a-ceremony-for-the-death-of-the-countrys-president-on-may-20-2024-in-madrid-spain-the-event-comes-after-the-iranian-government-confirmed-early-thi The flag of Iran lowered at its embassy in Madrid, Spain during a ceremony for the death of Ebrahim Raisi Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Members of the UN Security Council have todayobserved a minute of silence in memory of Raisi and his entourage who were killed.

Mozambique Ambassador Pedro Comissario Afonso, who holds the rotating Council presidency in May, asked members to stand up and remain silent “in remembrance of the loss of life in a crash of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ebrahim Raisi” and his team.

Raisi had in 2021 succeeded the moderate Hassan Rouhani, at a time when the economy was battered by US sanctions over Iran’s contested nuclear programme.

Iran saw a wave of protests in 2022 triggered by the death in custody of Iranian-Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in September after her arrest for allegedly flouting dress rules for women.

In March 2023, regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia signed a surprise deal that restored diplomatic relations.

The Gaza conflict sent tensions soaring and a series of tit-for-tat escalations led to Tehran launching hundreds of missiles and rockets directly at Israel in April this year.

In a speech hours before his death, Raisi emphasised Iran’s support for the Palestinians, a centrepiece of its foreign policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

“We believe that Palestine is the first issue of the Muslim world,” said Raisi.

Hamas expressed its condolences for Raisi, an “honourable supporter” of the group, while Hezbollah mourned him as “a protector of the resistance movements”.

– © AFP 2024