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‘No signs of life’ at crash site of helicopter carrying Iranian president, others

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Rescuers on Monday found a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s foreign minister and other officials that had apparently crashed the day before in the northeastern mountainous western Iran, although “no signs of life” were detected, state media reported.

As the sun rose Monday, rescuers spotted the helicopter at a distance of about 2 kilometers (1.25 miles), Iranian Red Crescent Society head Pir Hossein Kolivand told state media. ‘State. He did not give further details and those responsible had then been missing for more than 12 hours.

The incident comes as Iran, under Raisi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, launched an unprecedented drone and missile attack on Israel last month and enriched uranium closer than ever to the military grade levels.

Iran has also faced years of massive protests against its Shiite theocracy over a struggling economy and women’s rights – making the moment all the more sensitive for Tehran and the country’s future that the war between Israel and Hamas is inflaming the Middle East as a whole.

Raisi was traveling in the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan. State television said what it called a “hard landing” occurred near Jolfa, a town on the border with Azerbaijan, about 600 kilometers (375 miles) northwest of the Iranian capital, Tehran. State television later reported it further east, near the village of Uzi, but the details remained conflicting.

Alongside Raisi were Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, the governor of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province and other officials and bodyguards, state news agency IRNA reported. One local government official used the word “crash,” but others referred to either a “hard landing” or an “incident.”

Early Monday morning, Turkish authorities released what they described as drone footage showing what appeared to be a wildfire that they “suspected was helicopter wreckage.” Coordinates shown in the images located the fire about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of the Azerbaijani-Iranian border, on the side of a steep mountain.

Images released by IRNA early Monday showed what the agency described as the crash site, across a steep valley in a verdant mountain range. The soldiers speaking in the local Azeri language said: “There we are, we found him. »

Shortly after, state television said in scrolling text on the screen: “There are no live signs of people on board.” The semi-official Tasnim news agency did not give details, but showed rescuers using a small drone to fly over the site, talking among themselves saying the same thing.

Hardliners had urged the public to pray. State television broadcast images of hundreds of worshipers, some with their hands outstretched in supplication, praying at the Imam Reza shrine in the city of Mashhad, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, as well as in Qom and other places in the country. State television’s main channel broadcast the prayers continuously.

In Tehran, a group of men kneeling on the side of the street clasped prayer beads and watched a video of Raisi praying, some of them visibly crying.

“If anything happens to him, we will be heartbroken,” said one of the men, Mehdi Seyedi. “May the prayers work and he returns safely to the arms of the nation.”

IRNA has described the region as “forest” and the region is also known to be mountainous. State television broadcast images of SUVs driving through a wooded area and said they were hampered by poor weather conditions, including heavy rain and wind. Rescuers could be seen walking through the fog and mist.

Khamenei himself also urged the public to pray.

“We hope that Almighty God will bring the dear president and his colleagues back in good health into the arms of the nation,” Khamenei said, drawing an “amen” from the faithful he was addressing.

However, the Supreme Leader also stressed that the Iranian government’s business would continue no matter what. Under Iran’s constitution, Iran’s deputy prime president takes over if the president dies with Khamenei’s consent, and a new presidential election would be called within 50 days. First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber had already started receiving calls from foreign officials and governments in Raisi’s absence, state media reported.

Raisi, 63, a hardliner who once ran the country’s justice system, is considered a Khamenei protégé and some analysts have suggested he could replace the 85-year-old leader after Khamenei’s death or resignation .

Raisi was on the border with Azerbaijan on Sunday morning to inaugurate a dam with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. This is the third dam built by the two nations on the Aras River. This visit took place despite cold relations between the two countries, notably following a gun attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran in 2023, and Azerbaijan’s diplomatic relations with Israel, which the Iranian Shiite theocracy considers it its main enemy in the region.

Iran flies various helicopters in the country, but international sanctions make it difficult to obtain spare parts. Its military air fleet also largely dates back to before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. IRNA published images described as Raisi taking off in what looks like a Bell helicopter, with blue and white paint previously seen in published photographs.

Raisi won Iran’s 2021 presidential election, a vote that saw the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic. Raisi is sanctioned by the United States in part for his involvement in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, at the end of the bloody Iran-Iraq War.

Under Raisi, Iran now enriches uranium to levels close to weapons manufacturing and obstructs international inspections. Iran has armed Russia in its war against Ukraine and launched a massive drone and missile attack on Israel as part of its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It also continued to arm proxy groups in the Middle East, such as Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, mass protests have raged across the country for years. The most recent involved the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who had previously been arrested for not wearing a hijab, or headscarf, at the discretion of authorities. The months-long security crackdown following the protests killed more than 500 people and led to more than 22,000 being arrested.

In March, a United Nations commission of inquiry concluded that Iran was responsible for the “physical violence” that led to Amini’s death.

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Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

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