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A handout picture shows Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during a meeting with his Azeri counterpart ahead of the inauguration ceremony of a dam jointly built by Iran and Azerbaijan on the Aras River on May 19, 2024. - AFP
A handout picture shows Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during a meeting with his Azeri counterpart ahead of the inauguration ceremony of a dam jointly built by Iran and Azerbaijan on the Aras River on May 19, 2024. - AFP

Intense search as Iran president’s helicopter missing after ‘accident’

Kuwait monitoring developments, offers support • Iranian FM also on board with Raisi

TEHRAN: Iran launched a large-scale search and rescue effort to scour a fog-shrouded mountain area after President Ebrahim Raisi’s helicopter went missing Sunday in what state media described as an “accident”. Fears grew for the 63-year-old ultraconservative after contact was lost with the helicopter carrying him as well as Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and others in East Azerbaijan province, reports said. State television reported that “an accident happened to the helicopter carrying the president” in the Jolfa region of the western province, while some officials described it as a “hard landing”.

An Iranian official told Reuters the lives of Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian were “at risk following the helicopter crash”. “We are still hopeful but information coming from the crash site is very concerning,” the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. State TV quoted an official as saying that at least one passenger and one crewmember had been in contact with rescuers. It also said the helicopter had been found, though Iran’s Red Crescent denied this report.

Kuwait’s ministry of foreign affairs said Sunday it is closely monitoring with concern reports regarding the helicopter incident of Raisi and his accompanying delegation. In a statement, the ministry expressed on behalf of Kuwait best wishes and safety of the Iranian president and his accompanying delegation. The ministry affirmed its support for Iran in these delicate circumstances.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Iranians to “not worry” about the leadership of the Islamic republic, saying “there will be no disruption in the country’s work”. “We hope that Almighty God will bring our dear president and his companions back in full health into the arms of the nation,” he said in on state TV.

Expressions of concern and offers to help came from abroad, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Qatar and Turkey, as well as from the European Union, which said it activated its rapid response mapping service to aid in the search effort. Turkey is sending 32 mountain rescue specialists to help Iran in the search for the helicopter, the government’s emergency aid agency AFAD said on Sunday. The team and 32 vehicles have been deployed from centers in eastern Turkey said AFAD, in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

“The harsh weather conditions and heavy fog have made it difficult for the rescue teams to reach the accident site,” said one broadcaster. More than 40 rescue teams using search dogs and drones were sent to the site, reported the IRNA news agency as TV stations showed pictures of rows of waiting emergency response vehicles. Raisi was visiting the province where he inaugurated a dam project together with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, on the border between the two countries. Raisi’s convoy included three helicopters, and the other two had “reached their destination safely”, according to Tasnim news agency.

Foreign countries were closely following the search effort at a time of high regional tensions over the Gaza war between the Zionist entity and Hamas since Oct 7 that has drawn in other armed groups in the Middle East. A US State Department spokesman said: “We are closely following reports of a possible hard landing of a helicopter in Iran carrying the Iranian president and foreign minister. We have no further comment at this time.”

An Iranian Red Crescent team was seen walking up a slope in thick fog and drizzling rain, while other live footage showed worshippers reciting prayers in the holy city of Mashhad, Raisi’s hometown. In neighboring Iraq, Prime Minister Mohamed Shia Al-Sudani “instructed the interior ministry and the Iraqi Red Crescent and other relevant authorities to offer available resources... to aid in the search”.

Azeri President Aliyev said in a post on X that “we were profoundly troubled by the news of a helicopter carrying the top delegation crash-landing in Iran”. “Our prayers to Allah Almighty are with President Ebrahim Raisi and the accompanying delegation,” he said, noting that his country “stands ready to offer any assistance needed”. Armenia’s foreign ministry said Yerevan was “shocked by the news coming from Iran”. “As rescue operations continue, Armenia, as a close and friendly neighbor of Iran, is ready to provide all necessary support,” the ministry said on X.

The accident happened in the mountainous protected forest area of Dizmar near the town of Varzaghan, said the official IRNA news agency. Military personnel along with the Revolutionary Guards and police had also deployed teams to the area, said army chief-of-staff Mohammad Bagheri. Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said one of the helicopters “made a hard landing due to bad weather conditions” and that it was “difficult to establish communication” with the aircraft.

Raisi has been president since 2021 when he succeeded the moderate Hassan Rouhani, for a term during which Iran has faced crisis and conflict. He took the reins of a country in the grip of a deep social crisis and an economy strained by US sanctions against Tehran over its contested nuclear program. Iran saw a wave of mass protests triggered by the death in custody of Iranian-Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in Sept 2022 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 war in Gaza that broke out on Oct 7 sent regional tensions soaring again and a series of tit-for-tat escalations led to Tehran launching hundreds of missiles and rockets directly at the Zionist entity in April 2024.

In a speech following Sunday’s dam inauguration, Raisi emphasized Iran’s support for Palestinians, a centerpiece of its foreign policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution. “We believe that Palestine is the first issue of the Muslim world, and we are convinced that the people of Iran and Azerbaijan always support the people of Palestine and Gaza and hate the Zionist regime,” said Raisi. Raisi, born in 1960 in northeast Iran’s holy city of Mashhad, served as Tehran’s prosecutor-general from 1989 to 1994, deputy chief of the Judicial Authority for a decade from 2004, and then national prosecutor-general in 2014. – Agencies

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