Helicopter carrying Iran’s president apparently crashes in mountainous region

20 May 2024, 02:24

Rescue teams’ vehicles are seen near the site of the incident of the helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Varzaghan in north-western Iran
Iran. Picture: PA

One local government official used the word ‘crash’, but others referred to either a ‘hard landing’ or an ‘incident’.

A helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s foreign minister and other officials has apparently crashed in the mountainous north-west reaches of Iran, sparking a massive rescue operation.

Some began urging the public to pray for Mr Raisi and the others on board as rescue crews sped through a misty, rural forest where his helicopter was believed to be.

Mr Raisi was travelling in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.

The likely crash came after Iran under Mr Raisi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei launched an unprecedented drone-and-missile attack on Israel last month and has enriched uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.

Iran has also faced years of mass protests against its Shiite theocracy over an ailing economy and women’s rights — making the moment more sensitive for Tehran and the future of the country as the Israel-Hamas war inflames the wider Middle East.

State TV said the incident happened near Jolfa, a city on the border with Azerbaijan, some 375 miles north-west of the Iranian capital Tehran.

Later, state TV put it farther east near the village of Uzi, but details remained contradictory.

Travelling with Mr Raisi were Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, the governor of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province and other officials, the state-run IRNA news agency reported.

One local government official used the word “crash”, but others referred to either a “hard landing” or an “incident”.

Iran
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (Mert Gokhan Koc/AP)

Neither IRNA nor state TV offered any information on Mr Raisi’s condition.

Early on Monday morning, Turkish authorities released what they described as drone footage showing what appeared to be a fire in the wilderness that they “suspected to be wreckage of helicopter”.

Iranian rescuers rushed to the site, state TV reported. The coordinates listed in the footage put the fire 12 miles south of the Azerbaijan-Iranian border.

It comes as hard-liners urged the public to pray for Mr Raisi.

State TV later aired images of the faithful praying at Imam Reza Shrine in the city of Mashhad, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest sites, as well as in Qom and other locations across the country.

State television’s main channel aired the prayers non-stop.

“The esteemed president and company were on their way back aboard some helicopters and one of the helicopters was forced to make a hard landing due to the bad weather and fog,” interior minister Ahmad Vahidi said in comments aired on state TV.

Iranian pilgrims pray for President Ebrahim Raisi at Imam Reza Shrine in the city of Mashhad
Iranian pilgrims pray for President Ebrahim Raisi at Imam Reza Shrine in the city of Mashhad (Mohammad Hasan Salavati/Shahraranews via AP)

“Various rescue teams are on their way to the region but because of the poor weather and fogginess it might take time for them to reach the helicopter.”

He added: “The region is a bit (rugged) and it’s difficult to make contact. We are waiting for rescue teams to reach the landing site and give us more information.”

IRNA called the area a “forest” and the region is known to be mountainous as well.

State TV aired images of SUVs racing through a wooded area and said they were being hampered by poor weather conditions, including heavy rain and wind.

A rescue helicopter tried to reach the area where authorities believe Mr Raisi’s helicopter was, but it could not land due to the heavy mist, emergency services spokesman Babak Yektaparast told IRNA.

Long after the sun set, Iranian government spokesman Ali Bahadori Jahromi acknowledged that “we are experiencing difficult and complicated conditions” in the search.

“It is the right of the people and the media to be aware of the latest news about the president’s helicopter accident, but considering the co-ordinates of the incident site and the weather conditions, there is ‘no’ new news whatsoever until now,” he wrote on the social media platform X.

An Iranian state TV newsreader reads news on an incident of a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in north-western Iran
An Iranian state TV newsreader reads news on an incident of a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in north-western Iran (Vahid Salemi/AP)

“In these moments, patience, prayer and trust in relief groups are the way forward.”

Mr Raisi had been on the border with Azerbaijan early on Sunday to inaugurate a dam with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev.

The dam is the third one that the two nations built on the Aras River.

The visit came despite chilly relations between the two nations, including over a gun attack on Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tehran in 2023, and Azerbaijan’s diplomatic relations with Israel, which Iran’s Shiite theocracy views as its main enemy in the region.

Iran flies a variety of helicopters in the country, but international sanctions make it difficult to obtain parts for them.

Its military air fleet also largely dates back to before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

IRNA published images it described as Mr Raisi taking off in what resembled a Bell 412 helicopter, with a blue-and-white paint scheme previously seen in published photographs.

In this photo provided by Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), the helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi takes off at the Iranian border with Azerbaijan after President Raisi and his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev inaugurated dam of Qiz Qalasi, or Castel of Girl in Azeri, Iran
The helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi takes off at the Iranian border with Azerbaijan (Ali Hamed Haghdoust/IRNA via AP)

Mr Raisi, 63, is a hard-liner who formerly led the country’s judiciary.

He is viewed as a protege of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and some analysts have suggested he could replace the 85-year-old leader after his death or resignation from the role.

Mr Raisi won Iran’s 2021 presidential election, a vote that saw the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history.

Mr Raisi is sanctioned by the US in part over his involvement in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 at the end of the bloody Iran-Iraq war.

Under Mr Raisi, Iran now enriches uranium at nearly weapons-grade levels and hampers international inspections.

Iran has armed Russia in its war on Ukraine, as well as launched a massive drone-and-missile attack on Israel amid its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

It has also continued arming proxy groups in the Middle East, such as Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

By Press Association

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