Berliner Tageblatt - Intense search for Iran's President Raisi after helicopter 'accident'

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Intense search for Iran's President Raisi after helicopter 'accident'
Intense search for Iran's President Raisi after helicopter 'accident' / Photo: © Iranian Presidency/AFP/File

Intense search for Iran's President Raisi after helicopter 'accident'

Iran launched a large-scale search and rescue effort to scour a fog-shrouded mountain area after President Ebrahim Raisi's helicopter went missing Sunday in what state media described as an "accident".

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Fears grew for the 63-year-old ultraconservative after contact was lost with the helicopter carrying him as well as Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and others in East Azerbaijan province, reports said.

The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urged Iranians to "not worry" about the leadership of the Islamic republic, saying "there will be no disruption in the country's work".

"We hope that Almighty God will bring our dear president and his companions back in full health into the arms of the nation," he said in on state TV.

Expressions of concern and offers to help came from abroad, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Qatar and Turkey, as well as from the European Union which said it activated its rapid response mapping service to aid in the search effort.

State television reported that "an accident happened to the helicopter carrying the president" in the Jolfa region of the western province, while some officials described it as a "hard landing".

"The harsh weather conditions and heavy fog have made it difficult for the rescue teams to reach the accident site," said one broadcaster.

More than 40 rescue teams using search dogs and drones were sent to the site, reported the IRNA news agency as TV stations showed pictures of rows of waiting emergency response vehicles.

Raisi was visiting the province where he inaugurated a dam project together with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, on the border between the two countries.

Raisi's convoy included three helicopters, and the other two had "reached their destination safely," according to Tasnim news agency.

Foreign countries were closely following the search effort at a time of high regional tensions over the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas since October 7 that has drawn in other armed groups in the Middle East.

A US State Department spokesman said: "We are closely following reports of a possible hard landing of a helicopter in Iran carrying the Iranian president and foreign minister.

"We have no further comment at this time."

An Iranian Red Crescent team was seen walking up a slope in thick fog and drizzling rain, while other live footage showed worshippers reciting prayers in the holy city of Mashhad, Raisi's hometown.

- Thick fog and drizzle -

In neighbouring Iraq, Prime Minister Mohamed Shia al-Sudani "instructed the interior ministry and the Iraqi Red Crescent and other relevant authorities to offer available resources... to aid in the search".

Azeri President Aliyev said in a post on X that "we were profoundly troubled by the news of a helicopter carrying the top delegation crash-landing in Iran".

"Our prayers to Allah Almighty are with President Ebrahim Raisi and the accompanying delegation," he said, noting that his country "stands ready to offer any assistance needed".

The accident happened in the mountainous protected forest area of Dizmar near the town of Varzaghan, said the official IRNA news agency.

Military personnel along with the Revolutionary Guards and police had also deployed teams to the area, said army chief-of-staff Mohammad Bagheri.

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said one of the helicopters "made a hard landing due to bad weather conditions" and that it was "difficult to establish communication" with the aircraft.

- Years of crisis -

Raisi has been president since 2021 when he succeeded the moderate Hassan Rouhani, for a term during which Iran has faced crisis and conflict.

He took the reins of a country in the grip of a deep social crisis and an economy strained by US sanctions against Tehran over its contested nuclear programme.

Iran saw a wave of mass protests triggered by the death in custody of Iranian-Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in September 2022 after her arrest for allegedly flouting dress rules for women.

In March 2023, regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia signed a surprise deal that restored diplomatic relations.

The war in Gaza that broke out on October 7 sent regional tensions soaring again and a series of tit-for-tat escalations led to Tehran launching hundreds of missiles and rockets directly at Israel in April 2024.

In a speech following Sunday's dam inauguration, Raisi emphasised Iran's support for Palestinians, a centrepiece of its foreign policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"We believe that Palestine is the first issue of the Muslim world, and we are convinced that the people of Iran and Azerbaijan always support the people of Palestine and Gaza and hate the Zionist regime," said Raisi.

Raisi, born in 1960 in northeast Iran's holy city of Mashhad, served as Tehran's prosecutor-general from 1989 to 1994, deputy chief of the Judicial Authority for a decade from 2004, and then national prosecutor-general in 2014.

His black turban signifies direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed, and state media has referred to him by the senior title of ayatollah in the Shiite clerical hierarchy.

C.Meier--BTB