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Casualties of war? Iranian President, Foreign Minister both killed in chopper crash

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his foreign minister have been killed in a helicopter crash in mountainous terrain, an Iranian official says.

May 20, 2024, updated May 20, 2024
In this photo provided by Moj News Agency, rescue teams' vehicles are seen near the site of the incident of the helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Varzaghan in northwestern Iran, Sunday, May 19, 2024. A helicopter carrying President Raisi, the country's foreign minister and other officials apparently crashed in the mountainous northwest reaches of Iran on Sunday, sparking a massive rescue operation in a fog-shrouded forest as the public was urged to pray. (Azin Haghighi/Moj News Agency via AP)

In this photo provided by Moj News Agency, rescue teams' vehicles are seen near the site of the incident of the helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Varzaghan in northwestern Iran, Sunday, May 19, 2024. A helicopter carrying President Raisi, the country's foreign minister and other officials apparently crashed in the mountainous northwest reaches of Iran on Sunday, sparking a massive rescue operation in a fog-shrouded forest as the public was urged to pray. (Azin Haghighi/Moj News Agency via AP)

There was initially no official confirmation of the fate of nine people on board the aircraft, which included Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian.

Raisi died when a helicopter carrying him back from a visit to the Azerbaijani border crashed in heavy fog, a senior Iranian official later confirmed.

Rescue teams fought blizzards and difficult terrain through the night to reach the wreckage in East Azerbaijan province in the early hours of Monday.

A Turkish drone identified a source of heat suspected to be the helicopter’s wreckage and had shared the co-ordinates of the possible crash site with Iranian authorities, Anadolu news agency said earlier on X.

Iranian state media said bad weather caused the crash and was complicating rescue efforts. State news agency IRNA said Raisi was flying in a US-made Bell 212 helicopter.

The chief of staff of Iran’s army ordered all resources of the army and the elite Revolutionary Guards to be put to use in search and rescue operations.

The national broadcaster had earlier stopped all its regular programming to show prayers being held for Raisi across the country and, in a corner of the screen, live coverage of rescue teams deployed on foot in the mountainous area in heavy fog.In the early hours of Monday, it showed a rescue team, wearing bright jackets and head torches, huddled around a GPS device as they searched a pitch-black mountainside on foot amid a snowy blizzard.

“We are thoroughly searching every inch of the general area of the crash,” state media quoted a regional army commander as saying. “The area has very cold, rainy, and foggy weather conditions. The rain is gradually turning into snow.”

Neighbouring countries expressed concern and offered assistance in any rescue. The White House said US President Joe Biden had been briefed on reports about the crash. The European Union offered emergency satellite mapping technology to help Iran with the search.

The crash comes at a time of growing dissent within Iran over an array of political, social and economic crises. Iran’s clerical rulers face international pressure over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program and its deepening military ties with Russia during the war in Ukraine.

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Since Iran’s ally Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, provoking Israel’s assault on Gaza, conflagrations involving Iran-aligned groups have erupted throughout the Middle East.

Raisi, 63, was elected president in 2021, and since taking office has ordered a tightening of morality laws, overseen a bloody crackdown on anti-government protests and pushed hard in nuclear talks with world powers.

In Iran’s dual political system, split between the clerical establishment and the government, it is Raisi’s 85-year-old mentor Khamenei, supreme leader since 1989, who holds decision-making power on all major policies.

For years many have seen Raisi as a strong contender to succeed Khamenei, who has endorsed Raisi’s main policies. Raisi’s victory in a closely managed election in 2021 brought all branches of power under the control of hardliners, after eight years when the presidency had been held by pragmatist Hassan Rouhani and a nuclear deal negotiated with Washington.

However, Raisi’s standing may have been dented by widespread protests against clerical rule and a failure to turn around Iran’s economy, hamstrung by Western sanctions.

Raisi had been at the Azerbaijani border on Sunday to inaugurate the Qiz-Qalasi Dam, a joint project. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, who said he had bid a “friendly farewell” to Raisi earlier in the day, offered assistance in the rescue.

Agencies

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