As Iranians mourn crash victims, questions over decision to fly

The crash of a military plane Tuesday killed 106 people, including 68 journalists.

Their grief tinged with anger, Iranians poured into the streets of Tehran Thursday to mourn the victims of a military plane crash that left 108 people dead. The victims were mostly journalists en route to military exercises, but included crew and people on the ground.

Tearful family members clung to each other and Iranian photographers and cameramen wept as caskets guarded by military police passed by in a procession of more than 10,000 people.

A poem from 8-year-old Sepah was read to remember her father, Sepahdar Sajedi, a reporter for Iran's national news agency, IRNA.

But even as the dead were officially declared "martyrs" after the crash Tuesday - in which an aging Iranian Air Force plane crashed into an apartment block immediately after takeoff - the media have raised questions about whether the plane should ever have taken off.

The plane, which was carrying journalists to cover military maneuvers in the southern port city of Chabahar, was delayed more than six hours. Hamshahri newspaper reported Wednesday that one of its photographers had called his wife during the delay, and told her there were technical problems, so the pilot had refused to fly.

Officials deny that, but the circumstances of takeoff remain unclear, and have sparked a surge of speculation about carelessness by authorities.

"Things happen to people who live in a third world country like Iran," says an IRNA journalist who asked not to be named, walking beside the caskets of the five IRNA staff who died.

"Some say it was a plot, a conspiracy, and they blame the government. They knew [the plane] was out of order. They warned them: 'Do not take off,'" says the journalist. "The government is not favoring journalists, because they say they are interfering in their affairs - especially the new government of [President] Ahmadinejad."

Such criticism has prompted action by politicians as Iranians ask why the military continues to use planes such as this Lockheed C-130, bought from the US before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

"I hope the authorities take maximum precision in security [of flights] and supervision, and parliament will be extremely sensitive on cases like this," parliament speaker Gholamali Hadadadel told the mourners. Each family is to receive $33,000 in government compensation, according to reports.

"Parliament will pursue this ... and I pray that God will keep these dear lives in his hands, and give patience to [family members] with burned hearts."

During the speeches, a mourner shouted out that the incident should be investigated.

The number of probes is mounting. The Tehran prosecutor's office issued an investigation order; the cabinet of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed a vice president to identify the cause of the crash; and a key conservative parliamentary leader, Emad Afrough - who says he is ready to bring prosecutions - has promised that his commission will clear doubts.

Kazem Jalali, of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Council, said the defense minister should be held accountable. Other officials questioned why civilians were on the military plane at all, though the practice for journalists is common around the world.

"As always, denials and rejections are flowing in while responsible bodies and officials attempt to evade responsibility over the catastrophe," said a column in the English-language Iran Daily, published by IRNA.

"What, however, will haunt us for some time is the nagging feeling that they did not deserve such a treatment - to be flown on a dilapidated military cargo aircraft to tell the whole world, in words and pictures, how mighty and powerful our Army stands," the newspaper wrote.

"Politicians all around the world know very well how to beam and gloat about how much they care about people in front of the cameras," the Iran Daily added. "But when the lights go off...."

Beside the age of the planes and uncertain maintenance, US sanctions on Iran have made it impossible for Tehran to buy new parts directly from the US. Iranian media report only 15 of the original 62 planes of this type sold to Iran still fly; many of the rest have been retired, cannibalized for spare parts, or involved in accidents. [Editor's note: The original version overstated the number of C-130s sold to Iran by the US.]

Indeed, a dozen plane crashes in Iran during the past two decades are reported to have taken the lives of more than 800 people. The BBC reported Thursday that one newspaper threatened that if there is an attempt at a coverup, the paper would publish the transcript of the final conversation between the pilot and the control tower.

"The journalists, photographers, and cameramen have a great responsibility," Ezatollah Zarghami, head of IRIB, the national broadcasting network, told the funeral march. They "departed on God's mission, which finally led them to their desire."

Several large black banners implied transition to a better world. "So good," they read, "to open the wings and be a swallow."

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