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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and foreign minister killed in helicopter crash

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi had been in Azerbaijan earlier on Sunday to inaugurate a dam with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev.(AP: Vahid Salemi, File)
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi had been in Azerbaijan earlier on Sunday to inaugurate a dam with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev.(AP: Vahid Salemi, File)

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian have been killed in a helicopter crash in mountainous terrain and icy weather, state media has reported following search teams locating the charred wreckage.

“President Raisi, the foreign minister and all the passengers in the helicopter were killed in the crash,” a senior Iranian official also told Reuters, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Mr Raisi and Mr Amir-Abdollahian were travelling in heavy fog after visiting a dam on the country’s border with Azerbaijan when the helicopter suffered what state media described as a “hard landing” on Sunday, local time.

The wreckage was found early on Monday after an overnight search in blizzard conditions.

Footage from Iranian state television showed wreckage scattered on a foggy hillside, while separate images from IRNA showed Red Crescent workers carrying a covered body on a stretcher.

All those on the helicopter were killed, a senior Iranian official earlier told Reuters.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate power with a final say on foreign policy and Iran’s nuclear program, approved Vice-President Mohammad Mokhber’s apppointment as interim president on Monday.

He said Mr Mokhber had a maximum of 50 days to hold elections, Iran’s official news agency IRNA reported.

The supreme leader also declared five days of national mourning.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani was appointed acting foreign minister by Iran’s government cabinet.

A Turkish drone located the crash site in the mountainous terrain of Iran’s province, East Azerbaijan early on Monday using thermal imaging technology.

State media said images from the site showed the helicopter crashed into a mountain peak, although there was no official word yet on the cause of the crash.

Poor weather and rugged terrain hampered ground-based search efforts in the area north of Tabriz, in the province of East Azerbaijan.

“President Raisi’s helicopter was completely burned in the crash … unfortunately, all passengers are feared dead,” an Iranian official earlier told Reuters news agency.

The head of Iran’s Red Crescent, Pirhossein Kolivand, told state TV “the situation does not look good” after seeing the wreckage.

“With the discovery of the crash site, no signs of life have been detected among the helicopter’s passengers.”

Mr 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.

As interim president, Mr Mokhber will be part of a three-person council, along with the speaker of parliament and the head of the judiciary.

Iran has 12 vice-presidents who lead different organisations related to presidential affairs. The first vice-president coordinates the other vice-presidencies and chairs cabinet meetings at the direction of the president.

Weather, terrain hamper rescue efforts

The helicopter went down in the Varzeqan region, north of Tabriz in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.

Rescue teams fought blizzards and difficult terrain through the night to reach the wreckage 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 coordinates of the possible crash site with Iranian authorities, Anadolu news agency said earlier on X.

State news agency IRNA said Raisi was flying in a US-made Bell 212 helicopter.

Along with Mr Raisi and Mr Amir-Abdollahian, the helicopter was carrying the governor of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province, a senior imam from Tabriz city, and other officials and bodyguards, according to the news agency.

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.

Earlier, the national broadcaster had stopped all regular programming to show prayers being held for Raisi across the country.

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 in a 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.”

Several countries expressed concern and offered assistance in any rescue.

Countries express condolences

Messages of condolence poured in from Iran’s regional neighbours and allies, including the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, Iraq and Pakistan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called Mr Raisi “a true friend of Russia”, while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was “deeply shocked and saddened”.

Lebanon and Syria announced three days of national mourning. Iran backs the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah in Lebanon and has supported Syria’s government and security forces to stay in power throughout more than a decade of war.

“I can’t tell you how sorry I am about this incident that happened. Especially that the foreign minister had become a friend,” Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib told reporters on Monday.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, as well as other Lebanese officials and Hezbollah, also offered their condolences.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani said: “With profound sadness and deep sorrow, we received the tragic news. We extend our heartfelt condolences and sympathies to the Supreme Leader … and to the nation of Iran, its government and people.”

Pakistan will observe a day of mourning and fly its flag at half-mast as a mark of respect, the country’s Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, said.

In a post on social media platform X, he extended, on behalf of himself, the Pakistani people and their government, the deepest condolences to “Brotherly Iran”.

“The great Iranian nation will overcome this tragedy with customary courage,” Mr Sharif said.

Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamin Bin Hamad Al-Thani expressed “sincere condolences” in a post on X.

“Asking God Almighty for mercy and forgiveness for them and for their families with patience and solace. We belong to Allah and to Him we shall return,” he wrote.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi also said he was “deeply saddened and shocked by the tragic demise”.

“His contribution to strengthening India-Iran bilateral relationship will always be remembered … India stands with Iran in this time of sorrow.”

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan expressed condolences and said his country had been in constant contact with Iranian officials throughout the rescue efforts.

“Relevant institutions … did their best but unfortunately we weren’t able to hear good news,” Mr Fidan told a news conference.

Militant groups which are supported by Iran also issued a statement mourning Mr Raisi.

The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas conveyed “deepest condolences and solidarity … [for] this immense loss.”

It praised the dead Iranian leaders for supporting the Palestinian cause and resistance against Israel, and expressed confidence that Iran’s “deep-rooted institutions” would enable it to overcome “the repercussions of this great loss”.

Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, the head of Yemen’s Houthi supreme revolutionary committee, expressed the group’s deepest condolences.

“We ask God to grant their families patience and solace. Verily we belong to Allah and to Him we shall return. The Iranian people will remain adhering to the loyal leaders of their people, by God’s will.”

China passed on its condolences and provided active assistance in the rescue operation, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Monday, without giving details.

There was less reaction from Western capitals, though the European Union and Japan expressed their condolences.

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