TEHRAN, Iran, Jan 11 (AP) – Iran announced Saturday that its military “unintentionally” shot down the Ukrainian jetliner that crashed earlier this week, killing all 176 aboard, after the government had repeatedly denied Western accusations that it was responsible.
The plane was shot down early Wednesday, hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an American airstrike in Baghdad. No one was wounded in the attack on the bases. A military statement carried by 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 military said. It apologized 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. Iran’s acknowledgement of responsibility for the crash was likely to inflame public sentiment against authorities after Iranians had rallied around their leaders in the wake of Soleimani’s killing. The general was seen as a national icon, and hundreds of thousands of Iranians had turned out for funeral processions across the country.
But the majority of the plane crash victims were Iranians or Iranian-Canadians, and the crash came just weeks after authorities quashed nationwide protests ignited by a hike in gasoline prices.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani blamed the tragedy on “threats and bullying” by the United States after the killing of Soleimani. He expressed condolences to families of the victims, and he called for a “full investigation” and the prosecution of those responsible.
“A sad day,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted. “Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster. Our profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations.” The jetliner, a Boeing 737 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines, went down on the outskirts of Tehran shortly after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport.
Iran had denied for several days that a missile caused the crash. But then the U.S. and Canada, citing intelligence, said they believed Iran shot down the aircraft with a surface-to-air missile, a conclusion supported by videos of the incident.
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 57 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. The Canadian government had earlier lowered the nation’s death toll from 63.
“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.”
ISLAMABAD: Continuing with his endeavour to facilitate rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday met Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to encourage a negotiated settlement of disputes with Iran.
A statement issued by the Foreign Office said that Prime Minister Khan advised the monarch to peacefully resolve regional disputes through diplomacy.
The statement did not say how King Salman responded to Mr Khan’s suggestion. Saudi Arabia has in the past shunned such initiatives by Pakistan.
Pakistan has tried to mediate on four occasions in the past — most lately in 2016 when the then PM Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif visited Tehran and Riyadh to defuse the situation in the aftermath of execution of Saudi Shia cleric Baqir Al-Nimr. A curtain-raiser issued by the FO earlier in the day had also said the trip was part of Mr Khan’s “initiative for peace and security in the region”.
While Saudi Arabia and Iran have a history of hostile ties, the relations soured further after the start of Yemen war in 2015. Lately there has been a dangerous escalation in the situation following an attack claimed by the Houthis on Aramco-run oil fields and processing plant that crippled Saudi oil production.
Imran meets Saudi King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman
It is feared that military confrontation between the two arch-rivals in the Gulf could have grave consequences for the neighbourhood and the region at large. It is in this context that efforts are being made by several countries, including Pakistan, to contain the crisis.
Prime Minister Khan first spoke about his initiative on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session last month. He had then said that President Trump had asked him to help in defusing tensions in the region. Mr Khan had also discussed the issue with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in their meeting in New York.
It was earlier claimed that the initiative had been taken on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s request. The FO, however, later denied that the initiative was being undertaken on someone else’s behest and claimed that the initiative was PM Khan’s own for the sake of regional peace.
Besides King Salman, Mr Khan along with his delegation also met Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman during his stay in Riyadh.
PM Khan exchanged views with the crown prince on the security situation in the region and efforts for peace. He reiterated Pakistan’s ‘unwavering’ support and commitment to the security of the two Holy Mosques.
Earlier on Sunday, PM Khan with a similar message had travelled to Tehran, where the leadership welcomed Pakistan’s efforts aimed at defusing tensions in the region. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in his media talk after meeting Mr Khan said: “Regional issues have to be resolved through regional means and dialogue. We also emphasised that any goodwill gesture will be responded with a goodwill gesture and good words.”
It is believed that the way out of the Iran-Saudi Arabia stand-off lies in the resolution of Yemen issue.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, too, had told Mr Khan that Iran “has proposed a four-article plan for finishing the war on Yemen since a long time ago; the end of this war can have positive effects on the region.”
Prime Minister Khan expressed optimism about possible improvements in US-Iran ties which are currently at the lowest ebb after President Donald Trump announced withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, followed by imposition of pressing sanctions on Tehran, APP reported.
The prime minister, in a brief interview with a CNN programme hosted by Becky Anderson on Tuesday night, said that during his visit to New York, President Trump had asked him that he (Mr Khan) should try and go between Iran and the United States. And during his recent visit to Iran, PM Khan added, he had also spoken to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about the US offer.
In reply to a question, the prime minister said the situation was evolving and he would not go into details. “Let’s see; it gets anywhere. I will not go into too much detail, until there is response from both sides.”
He admitted that relations between the two countries were more complicated; however, he expressed optimism that there was realisation on both sides.
About the US president, Mr Khan said the people criticised him often, but “I think, what I like in him that he does not believe in wars”.
Prime Minister Khan welcomed a $240 million investment in Pakistan by a Hong Kong-based port operator and its commitment to the country’s economic prosperity.
Talking to a delegation of Hutchison Port Holdings, led by its Group Managing Director Eric Ip, which called on him on Tuesday, the prime minister reiterated the commitment and focus of the government to facilitate investment and ease-of-doing-business that would ultimately result in economic growth and employment generation.
According to a press release issued by the PM Office, Eric Ip apprised the prime minister of his company’s fresh investment of $240m in Pakistan that would make available a significant amount of new container terminal capacity at Karachi Port and increase Hutchison Port Holdings’ total investment in the country to $1 billion.
The prime minister was also briefed on the development of Hutchison Port Holdings, its parent company CK Hutchison Holdings, and the group’s commitment to playing a pivotal role in facilitating the economic growth of Pakistan, as well as supporting the development of Karachi Port into a major hub for trade in Asia.
Hutchison Port Holdings is one of the world’s largest port companies, with over 30,000 employees, operating 52 ports and terminals in 27 countries spanning Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, the Americas and Australia.
Minister for Maritime Affairs Ali Haider Zaidi, Adviser to the PM on Commerce Abdul Razzak Dawood, Special Assistant to the PM on Overseas Pakistanis Zulfiqar Abbas Bukhari, Ambassador at Large for Foreign Investment Ali Jehangir Siddiqui, Board of Investment Chairman Zubair Haider Gilani and other senior officials were present during the meeting.
The Hutchison Ports delegation also included Managing Director for the Middle East & Africa Andy Tsoi, Business Director for the Middle East & Africa Eric Ng and members of the company’s Pakistan management team.
UNITED NATIONS: “I had a very good meeting with Prime Minister (Imran) Khan. It was a long meeting and we discussed a lot,” said US President Donald Trump when Indian journalists pressed him to condemn Pakistan’s alleged support for militants in the occupied valley.
The 74th session of the UN General Assembly, although focused on climate change, has also become an India-Pakistan battlefield, with both trying to win over the support of the international community for their position on Kashmir.
While the Pakistanis are focusing on the human rights violations in held Kashmir, the Indians try to divert the world’s attention to its accusation that Islamabad intends to send 500 militants into the valley.
Since Aug 5, when India unilaterally and illegally annexed the occupied land, the US and international media have published hundreds of stories on the Indian siege of Kashmir, which entered its 51st day on Wednesday.
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UNGA session is focused on climate change, but it has also become an India-Pakistan battlefield
This makes it difficult for the Indians to deflect allegations of human rights violations in held Kashmir. They, however, counter it by trying to lead the argument to terrorism, as Indian journalists did at the Trump-Modi presser on Tuesday afternoon.
President Trump, however, refused to be dragged into this debate and in doing so, he once again reiterated his offer of arbitration to reduce India-Pakistan tensions, despite New Delhi’s repeated rejection of his offers.
Asked “how do you make sure that you clamp down on terrorism from Pakistan,” the US leader said: “Well, I had a very good meeting with Prime Minister Khan. It was a long meeting and we discussed a lot.”
He then made his first – and the third this week – reference of the day to his mediation offer. “And I think he’d like to see something happen that would be very fruitful, very peaceful. And I think that will happen, ultimately. I really believe that these two great gentlemen (Mr Khan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi) will get together and work something,” he said.
“You mentioned Pakistan, but Iran would have to be at the top of the list. Because if you look at terrorist states, that’s been the number one for a long time,” he added.
He then went back to urging India, Pakistan to talk to each other — another suggestion New Delhi does not like.
“I really believe that Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Khan, they get along — they will get along when they get to know each other. And I think a lot of good things will come from that meeting.”
The journalists then tried another approach, claiming that Pakistan had 30 to 40 thousand terrorists and asked Mr Trump to give a message to Islamabad on this issue.
“Well, I mean, the message is not for me to give, it’s for Prime Minister Modi to give. And I think he gave that loud and clear on the other day (in Houston) when we were together. He gave a pretty loud message. And I’m sure he will be able to handle that situation.”
The journalists then came from a different angle, claiming that Mr Khan admitted training Al Qaeda (which he did not). “How do you see the statement coming from the Pakistani prime minister,” one of them asked.
WASHINGTON: Major US social media firms told a Senate panel on Wednesday they are doing more to prevent to remove violent or extremist content from online platforms in the wake of several high-profile incidents, focusing on using more technological tools to act faster.
Critics say too many violent videos or posts that back extremist groups supporting terrorism are not immediately removed from social media websites.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said social media firms need to do more to prevent violent content.
Facebook’s head of global policy management, Monika Bickert, told the Senate Commerce Committee its software detection systems have “reduced the average time it takes for our AI to find a violation on Facebook Live to 12 seconds, a 90 percent reduction in our average detection time from a few months ago.” In May, Facebook Inc said it would temporarily block users who break its rules from broadcasting live video. That followed an international outcry after a gunman killed 51 people in New Zealand and streamed the attack live on his page.
Bickert said Facebook asked law enforcement agencies to help it access “videos that could be helpful training tools” to improve its machine learning to detect violent videos.
Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Sunday struck out at United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — who directly accused Tehran for drone attacks targeting Saudi oil facility claimed by the Yemeni rebels — saying that "blaming Iran won't end the disaster".
"Having failed at 'max pressure', @SecPompeo's turning to 'max deceit'," Zarif tweeted. "US and its clients are stuck in Yemen because of illusion that weapon superiority will lead to military victory. Blaming Iran won't end disaster. Accepting our April '15 proposal to end war and begin talks may."
The attacks on Saturday, claimed by Yemen's Houthi rebels, resulted in “the temporary suspension of production operations” at the Abqaiq processing facility and the Khurais oil field, Riyadh said.
That led to the interruption of an estimated 5.7 million barrels in crude supplies, authorities said while pledging the kingdom's stockpiles would make up the difference.
While markets remain closed on Sunday, the attack could shock world energy prices. They also increased overall tensions in the region amid an escalating crisis between the United States and Iran over Tehran's unravelling nuclear deal with world powers.
Late on Saturday, Pompeo directly blamed Iran for the attack on Twitter, without offering evidence to support his claim. The US, Western nations, their Gulf Arab allies and United Nations experts allege Iran supplies the Houthis with weapons and drones — a charge that Tehran denies.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi had dismissed Pompeo's remarks as “blind and futile comments".
"The Americans adopted the 'maximum pressure' policy against Iran, which, due to its failure, is leaning towards 'maximum lies'," Mousavi said in a statement.
First word of Saturday's assault came in online videos of giant fires at the Abqaiq facility, some 330 kilometres northeast of the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
Machine-gun fire could be heard in several clips alongside the day's first Muslim call to prayers, suggesting security forces tried to bring down the drones just before dawn. In daylight, Saudi state television aired a segment with its local correspondent near a police checkpoint, a thick plume of smoke visible behind him.
US President Donald Trump called Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to offer his support for the kingdom's defence, the White House said. The crown prince assured Trump that Saudi Arabia is "willing and able to confront and deal with this terrorist aggression", according to a news release from the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
Saudi Aramco describes its Abqaiq oil processing facility in Buqyaq as "the largest crude oil stabilisation plant in the world". The facility processes sour crude oil into sweet crude, then transports it onto transshipment points on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea or to refineries for local production. Estimates suggest it can process up to 7m barrels of crude oil a day. By comparison, Saudi Arabia produced 9.65m barrels of crude oil a day in July.
The Khurais oil field is believed to produce over 1m barrels of crude oil a day. It has estimated reserves of over 20 billion barrels of oil, according to Aramco.
There was no immediate impact on global oil prices as markets were closed for the weekend. Benchmark Brent crude had been trading at just above $60 a barrel.
Negotiations between the US and the Taliban had been ongoing for almost a year in Doha [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Afghan group says US President Donald Trump's abrupt cancellation of peace talks will harm Washington more.
The Taliban has condemned US President Donald Trump's decision to suspend the ongoing talks with the group to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan as an "anti-peace" move.
"Now that US President Trump has announced the suspension of negotiations... this would not harm anyone else but the Americans themselves," the group said in a statement on Sunday.
In a series of tweets on Saturday, Trump said he was calling off secret meetings scheduled for Sunday with Taliban representatives and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at Camp David in Maryland, US.
Citing a Taliban attack in Kabul last week in which 12 people, including a US soldier, were killed as the reason, Trump also cancelled the US-Taliban negotiations ongoing in Qatar for nearly a year.
The Taliban said the cancellation of talks would "lead to more losses for the US", "harm [its] credibility" and "show their anti-peace stance in [a] more clear way".
"Our struggle for the past 18 years ... will continue until the foreign occupation is finished and the Afghans are given a chance to live by their own choice," said the statement.
The Taliban said the US negotiating team was "happy with the progress made so far" in Doha and the talks were held "in a good atmosphere".
"We had fruitful discussions with the US negotiating team and the agreement was finalised," said the statement.
"The American delegation was happy from the outcome of the talks until yesterday [Saturday]. Both sides were preparing for the announcement and the signing of the agreement."
The Taliban said it had even set September 23 as the inaugural day of another round of inter-Afghan dialogue in the hope that a deal with the US would be reached before that date.
Donald J. Trump
Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday. They were coming to the United States tonight. Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to..
Following Trump's announcement, the Afghan president's office said that "real peace" would only be possible if the Taliban stopped launching attacks and held direct talks with the government.
The Taliban has long refused to engage with the Afghan government, calling it a "puppet regime" of the West with "no real power".
'Talks dead for now'
The US has also recalled its special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, to Washington to determine the path forward, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a US network on Sunday.
Asked on "Fox News Sunday" whether the Afghan talks were dead, Pompeo said, "For the time being they are."
Reporting from Washington, Al Jazeera's Rob Reynolds said the cancellation of talks with the Taliban was "certainly startling for policymakers and politicians and pundits" in the US capital.
Reynolds, however, said the decision did not necessarily signal that the talks were dead.
"Its is worth recalling that President Trump both as a businessman and president has used this tactic many times in the past, that of walking away from negotiations in hopes of getting a better or stronger negotiating position."
Reynolds said Trump was hoping that the Taliban would decide that it needed a peace deal more than the US.
"Trump's use of the word 'leverage' in his tweets indicated that he is approaching these talks like a "business transaction," he said.
Last week, US and Taliban negotiators struck a draft deal that could have led to a withdrawal of troops from America's longest war.
There are currently 14,000 US forces as well as thousands of other NATO troops in Afghanistan, 18 years after its invasion by a US-led coalition following the September 11, 2001 attacks.
India's space programme suffered a huge setback on Saturday after it lost contact with an unmanned spacecraft moments before it was due to make a historic soft landing on the Moon.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to comfort glum scientists and a stunned nation from the lunar programme's command centre in Banglalore, saying India was “proud” and clasping the visibly emotional mission chief in a lengthy bear hug.
Blasting off in July, India had hoped to become just the fourth country after the United States, Russia and regional rival China to make a successful Moon landing, and the first on the lunar South Pole.
But in the early hours of Saturday India time, as Modi looked on and millions watched with bated breath nationwide, Vikram, the lander named after the father of India's space programme, went silent just 2.1 kilometres above the lunar surface.
“The Vikram lander descent was (going) as planned and normal performance was observed,” Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairman Kailasavadivoo Sivan said.
“Subsequently the communication from the lander to the ground station was lost,” he said in a stunned operations room. “The data is being analysed.”
The Chandrayaan-2 ( “Moon Vehicle 2”) orbiter, which will circle and study the Moon remotely for a year, is however “healthy, intact, functioning normally and safely in the lunar orbit”, the ISRO said.
Freshly re-elected Modi had hoped to bask in the glory of a successful mission, but on Saturday he deftly turned consoler-in-chief in a speech at mission control broadcast live on television and to his 50 million Twitter followers.
“Sisters and brothers of India, resilience and tenacity are central to India's ethos. In our glorious history of thousands of years, we have faced moments that may have slowed us, but they have never crushed our spirit,” he said.
“We have bounced back again ... This is the reason our civilisation stands tall,” he said in Bangalore. “When it comes to our space programme, the best is yet to come.”
Chandrayaan-2 took off on July 22 carrying an orbiter, lander and rover almost entirely designed and made in India, a week after an initial launch was halted just before blast-off.
ISRO had acknowledged before the soft landing that it was a complex manoeuvre, which Sivan called “15 minutes of terror”.
It was carrying rover Pragyan — “wisdom” in Sanskrit — which was due to emerge several hours after touchdown.
The rover was expected to explore craters for clues on the origin and evolution of the Moon, and also for evidence on how much water the polar region contains.
According to Mathieu Weiss, a representative in India for France's space agency CNES, this is vital to determining whether humans could one day spend extended periods on the Moon.
It would mean the Moon could be used as a pitstop on the way to Mars, the next objective of governments and private spacefaring programmes such as Elon Musk's Space X.
Asia's third-largest economy also hopes to secure lucrative commercial satellite and orbiting deals in the competitive market.
China in January became the first to land a rover on the far side of the Moon. In April, Israel's attempt failed at the last minute when its craft suffered an engine failure and apparently crashed onto the lunar surface.
The Chandrayaan-2 space mission — India's most ambitious so far — stood out because of its low cost of about $140 million.
The US spent the equivalent of more than $100 billion on its Apollo missions.
India is preparing Gaganyaan, its first manned space mission, with the air force announcing on Friday that the first level of selection of potential astronauts was complete.
The South Asian nation also hopes to land a probe on Mars. In 2014, it became only the fourth nation to put a satellite into orbit around the Red Planet.