'No sign' of life found at crash site of Iran President Ebrahim Raisi's helicopter

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged the nation to pray for the missing leaders on Sunday

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There was “no sign” of life among passengers of the helicopter carrying Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and other officials, Iran's state television said Monday.

“Upon finding the helicopter, there was no sign of the helicopter passengers being alive as of yet,” state TV reported, citing the Iranian Red Crescent Society head Pir Hossein Kolivand.

While it did not elaborate, the semi-official Tasnim news agency showed rescuers using a small drone to fly over the site, with them saying the same thing.

Semi-official news outlets declared the president dead on Monday morning, although no official confirmation was immediately provided.

Mehr news agency said the president, foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, and several other officials "had an accident while serving the people of Iran" and described them as martyrs.

An Iranian official also confirmed their deaths to Reuters.

“We can see the wreckage and the situation does not look good,” Mr Kolivand told state TV.

The helicopter crashed in the mountainous north-west region of Iran, in East Azerbaijan province, the day before.

State TV said the “hard landing” happened near Jolfa, a city on the border with the nation of Azerbaijan, about 600km north-west of the capital, Tehran.

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

State news agency IRNA said Mr 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.

Iran's Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi confirmed that rescue teams had been sent to an area close to Iran's border with Azerbaijan.

Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, East Azerbaijan Governor Malik Rahmati and Mohammed Ali Ale-Hashem, the imam of Tabriz, were all also reportedly aboard the helicopter.

Two other helicopters travelling in the convoy landed safely.

Aerial search and rescue operations were suspended after heavy fog left helicopters unable to land.

“It’s a complicated area, and making contact is difficult. We are waiting for teams to reach the area for more information,” Mr Vahidi told state TV.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iranians should pray for the missing leaders.

“Everyone should pray for the health of these people who are serving the Iranian nation,” Mr Khamenei said in a post on X.

“The nation doesn't need to be worried or anxious as the administration of the country will not be disrupted at all.”

An Iranian official told Reuters that the lives of Mr Raisi and Mr Amirabdollahian were “in danger”.

“We are still hopeful but information coming from the crash site is very concerning,” said the official.

Later overnight, the Iranian Foreign Ministry said: “Despite adverse weather and environmental conditions, efforts by rescue teams to reach the accident site continue earnestly and with hope.”

The ministry “sincerely thanks the numerous governments, nations and international organisations for their expressions of human emotion and solidarity with the government and people of Iran, as well as their offers of help and assistance for the search and rescue operation”.

Mr Raisi, 63, had been on the border with Azerbaijan to inaugurate the Qiz Qalasi and Khoda Afarin dams on the river Aras before he set off to return to Iran by helicopter.

The accident was originally reported near the city of Jolfa. Iran's Tasnim news agency later reported the crash as having happened near Uzi, further east within Iran.

Irna reported that the crash had taken place in the mountainous protected forest area of Dizmar near the town of Varzeqan, which was confirmed by the ministry.

Rescue teams were reportedly searching close to the nearby Sungun copper mine.

Turkey is sending 32 mountain rescue specialists to help Iran search for the helicopter, the government's emergency aid agency Afad said on Sunday.

The team and 32 vehicles have been sent from centres in eastern Turkey, Afad said in a post on X.

The EU on Sunday said it had activated its “rapid response mapping service” to help Iran search for the helicopter.

“Upon Iranian request for assistance, we are activating the EU's Copernicus EMS rapid response mapping service in view of the helicopter accident reportedly carrying the President of Iran and its Foreign Minister,” EU commissioner for crisis management Janez Lenarcic said on X

Other outlets initially gave conflicting versions of the incident, with Mehr claiming Mr Raisi had landed safely in Tabriz.

State TV broadcast prayers for Mr Raisi's safety from the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, as rescue teams could be seen travelling to the site in heavy fog.

Executive Vice President Mohammad Mokhber and other government officials departed for Tabriz after news of the accident emerged, the state-run Irna news agency reported.

But state media later denied a meeting of the Supreme National Security Council had taken place.

Drones and rescue teams were sent to the site, the head of Iran's Red Crescent told the Isna news agency.

The US State Department said it was “closely following” reports from Iran following the crash, and the White House confirmed President Biden was briefed on the incident.

The UAE's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was following with deep concern media reports of the helicopter crash.

The office of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was following reports with concern and hopes for the safety of Mr Raisi and his entourage.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani said he had instructed his country's Ministry of Interior and the Iraqi Red Crescent to assist in the search and rescue efforts.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, who met Mr Raisi earlier on Sunday, said he was “profoundly troubled” by the reports of the crash.

“As a neighbour, friend and brotherly country, the Republic of Azerbaijan stands ready to offer any assistance needed,” he said in a post on X.

Countries including Russia, Saudi Arabia and Qatar also expressed their concern and offered assistance.

Iran has a poor aviation safety record, partly due to international sanctions making it difficult to acquire modern parts for aircraft.

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

The Aviation Safety Network has recorded 20 “incidents” across Iran in the past 10 years.

Mr Raisi, a hardliner who took office in 2021, had been touted as the potential successor to Mr Khamenei.

He previously served in the judiciary, including as prosecutor and deputy prosecutor for Tehran, and was put under US sanctions due to his involvement in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.

Although Mr Khamenei has the ultimate say in Iran, experts say the death or incapacitation of Mr Raisi could send his succession plan into disarray.

Jason Brodsky, policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran, said such a situation would “not change the fundamentals of Iran's regime policies” but had “the potential to shake Iran's succession system”.

“Raisi is also the most qualified person by virtue of bureaucratic experience to succeed Khamenei and has been the closest president ideologically to Khamenei since he took over as supreme leader,” he wrote on X.

Updated: May 20, 2024, 5:41 AM