TEHRAN -- In the face of mounting evivdence, Iran on Saturday acknowledged that it shot down the Ukrainian jetliner by accident, killing all 176 people aboard. The admission by Iran's Revolutionary Guard undermined the credibility of information provided by senior officials, who for three days had adamantly dismissed allegations of a missile strike as Western propaganda.

It also raised a host of new questions, such as why Iran did not shut down its international airport or airspace on Wednesday when it was bracing for the U.S. to retaliate for a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq. No one was hurt in that attack, carried out in retaliation for the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an American airstrike in Baghdad.

Iran's acknowledgment alters the narrative around its confrontation with the U.S. in a way that could anger the Iranian public. Iran had promised harsh revenge after Soleimani's death, but instead of killing American soldiers, its forces downed a civilian plane in which most passengers were Iranian.

On Saturday night, hundreds gathered at universities in Tehran to protest the government's late acknowledgement of the plane being shot down. They demanded officials involved in the missile attack be removed from their positions and tried. Police broke up the demonstrations.

President Donald Trump tweeted messages of support to Iranians who back protests of the government, saying he and his administration are behind them. In the tweets, Trump called on the Iranian government to allow human rights groups to monitor the protests and expressed support for the "brave, long-suffering people" of Iran.

Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Guard's aerospace division, said his unit accepts full responsibility for the shootdown. In an address broadcast by state TV, he said when he learned about the downing of the plane, "I wished I was dead."

He said he raised the possibility to his superiors that his forces shot down the plane as early as Wednesday morning because "the simultaneous occurrence of the launch and crash was suspicious."

Hajizadeh said Guard forces ringing the capital had beefed up their air defenses and were at the "highest level of readiness," fearing that the U.S. would retaliate. He said he suggested Tehran should close its airspace but no action was taken.

He said the airline's pilot and crew had done nothing wrong, but an officer made the "bad decision" to open fire on the plane after mistaking it for a cruise missile.

"We were prepared for an all-out conflict," he said.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, expressed his "deep sympathy" to the families of the victims and called on the armed forces to "pursue probable shortcomings and guilt in the painful incident."

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked the U.S, Britain, Canada and others for information about the crash and their support. He said that "undoubtedly helped" push Iran to acknowledge its responsibility for the crash. Zelenskiy said the crash investigation should continue and the "perpetrators" should be brought to justice.

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