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Rescue Workers Search For Iran’s President After Helicopter Crash

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Rescue Workers Search For Iran's President
Search and rescue teams have been scouring Varzaqan in the East Azerbaijan Province: Getty Images

A helicopter carrying Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s foreign minister, and other dignitaries crashed in the mountainous northwest on Sunday, sparking a large rescue attempt in a foggy forest as the population was asked to pray.

The apparent crash occurred as Iran, led by Raisi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, launched an unprecedented drone and missile offensive on Israel last month and enriched uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.

Iran has also endured years of large protests against its Shiite theocracy over an ailing economy and women’s rights, making the situation even more sensitive for Tehran and the country’s future as the Israel-Hamas conflict rages across the Middle East.

Raisi was heading through Iran’s East Azerbaijan province. State television reported a “hard landing” at Jolfa, a city on the border with Azerbaijan some 600 kilometers (375 miles) northwest of Tehran. Later, state television moved it farther east, near the hamlet of Uzi, but reports remained inconsistent.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, the governor of Iran’s East Azerbaijan region, and other officials and bodyguards accompanied Raisi, according to the Associated Press. One local government official used the term “crash,” while others mentioned a “hard landing” or a “incident.”

Iran’s state TV Silent

In the hours that followed, neither IRNA nor state TV reported on Raisi’s condition. However, hardliners urged the population to pray for him. State television broadcast footage of hundreds of believers, some with their hands raised in supplication, worshiping at the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad.

One of Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines, as well as in Qom and other cities across the country. The primary channel of state television broadcast the prayers nonstop. In Tehran, a group of men kneeling on the side of the street held strands of prayer beads and watched a video of Raisi praying, with some clearly crying.

“If anything happens to him, we’ll be heartbroken,” one of the men, Mehdi Seyedi, stated. “May the prayers work and may he return to the arms of the nation safe and sound.”

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi stated on state television that “the esteemed president and company were on their way back aboard some helicopters, and one of the helicopters was forced to make a hard landing due to bad weather and fog.”

“Various rescue teams are on their way to the region but because of the poor weather and fogginess it might take time for them to reach the helicopter.”

Poor weather conditions

IRNA referred to the area as a “forest,” and it is also known to be mountainous. Poor weather conditions, including heavy rain and wind, hampered SUVs racing through a wooded region, according to state TV. Rescuers were visible walking through the fog and mist.

A rescue aircraft attempted to land in the region where authorities believe Raisi’s chopper was, but was unable to do so owing to heavy mist, emergency services spokesperson Babak Yektaparast told IRNA.

Late in the evening, Turkey’s defense ministry reported that it had sent an unmanned aerial vehicle and was prepared to send a helicopter with night vision capabilities to assist with the search and rescue efforts.

Long after the sun had set, Iranian government spokesman Ali Bahadori Jahromi said that “we are experiencing difficult and complicated conditions” throughout the search.

Raisi, 63, a hardliner who formerly commanded the country’s court, is seen as Khamenei’s protégé, and some observers believe he may succeed the 85-year-old leader after his death or retirement. Raisi had gone on the border with Azerbaijan early Sunday to inaugurate a dam alongside President Ilham Aliyev. The dam is the third that the two countries have built on the Aras River.

The visit occurred despite strained relations between the two countries, including a shooting attempt on Azerbaijan’s Embassy in Tehran in 2023 and Azerbaijan’s diplomatic connections with Israel, which Iran’s Shiite theocracy regards as its principal regional adversary.

Iran pilots a variety of helicopters, but international sanctions make it difficult to obtain spare parts. Its military air fleet predates the 1979 Islamic Revolution. IRNA reported images showing Raisi taking off in what seemed to be a Bell helicopter with a blue-and-white paint scheme similar to that seen in prior photographs.

Raisi won Iran’s 2021 presidential election, which had the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history. The US has sanctioned Raisi in part because of his involvement in the mass execution of thousands of political detainees in 1988, at the close of the horrific Iran-Iraq war.

Source: AP

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