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‘No sign of life’ at crash site of helicopter carrying Iran’s president

In this photo provided by Moj News Agency, rescue teams are seen near the site of the incident of the helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Varzaghan in north-western Iran, Sunday, May 19, 2024 (Azin Haghighi, Moj News Agency via AP)
In this photo provided by Moj News Agency, rescue teams are seen near the site of the incident of the helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Varzaghan in north-western Iran, Sunday, May 19, 2024 (Azin Haghighi, Moj News Agency via AP)

Iranian state television said on Monday there is “no sign of life” seen at the crash site of a helicopter that was carrying president Ebrahim Raisi.

The site was across a steep valley and rescuers had yet to reach it, state media reported.

As the sun rose on Monday, rescuers saw the helicopter from a distance of some 1.25 miles, the head of the Iranian Red Crescent Society, Pir Hossein Kolivand, told state media.

He did not elaborate and the officials had been missing at that point by more than 12 hours.

The helicopter crashed on Sunday and was carrying Mr Raisi, foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollhian and other officials.

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

Iran has also faced years of mass protests against its Shiite theocracy over an ailing economy and women’s rights — making the moment that much more sensitive for Tehran and the future of the country as the Israel-Hamas war inflames the wider Middle East.

Mr Raisi was traveling in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.

State TV said what it called a “hard landing” happened near Jolfa, a city on the border with the nation of Azerbaijan, some 375 miles north-west of the Iranian capital, Tehran. Later, state TV put it farther east near the village of Uzi, but details remained contradictory.

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President Ebrahim Raisi (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Also travelling with Mr Raisi was the governor of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province and other officials and bodyguards, the state-run IRNA news agency reported.

One local government official used the word “crash”, but others referred to either a “hard landing” or an “incident”.

Early on Monday morning, Turkish authorities released what they described as drone footage showing what appeared to be a fire in the wilderness that they “suspected to be wreckage of helicopter”.

The co-ordinates listed in the footage put the fire 12 miles south of the Azerbaijan-Iranian border on the side of a steep mountain.

Footage released by the IRNA early on Monday showed what the agency described as the crash site, across a steep valley in a green mountain range.

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People pray for Mr Raisi in a ceremony at Vali-e-Asr square in downtown Tehran (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Soldiers speaking in the local Azeri language said: “There it is, we found it.”

Shortly after, state TV in an on-screen scrolling text said: “There is no sign of life from people on board.”

It did not elaborate, but the semi-official Tasnim news agency showed rescuers using a small drone to fly over the site, with them speaking among themselves saying the same thing.

Hard-liners urged the public to pray for him. State TV aired images of hundreds of the faithful, some with their hands outstretched in supplication, praying at Imam Reza Shrine in the city of Mashhad, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest sites, as well as in Qom and other locations across the country.

IRNA called the area a “forest” and the region is known to be mountainous as well.

State TV aired images of SUVs racing through a wooded area and said they were being hampered by poor weather conditions, including heavy rain and wind. Rescuers could be seen walking in the fog and mist.

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Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Mr Khamenei also urged the public to pray.

“We hope that God the Almighty returns the dear president and his colleagues in full health to the arms of the nation,” he said, drawing an “amen” from the worshipers he was addressing.

However, the supreme leader also stressed the business of Iran’s government would continue no matter what.

Under the Iranian constitution, Iran’s vice first president takes over if the president dies with Mr Khamenei’s assent, and a new presidential election would be called within 50 days.

First vice president Mohammad Mokhber already had begun receiving calls from officials and foreign governments in Mr Raisi’s absence, state media reported.

Mr Raisi, 63, a hard-liner who formerly led the country’s judiciary, is viewed as a protege of Mr Khamenei and some analysts have suggested he could replace the 85-year-old leader after Mr Khamenei’s death or resignation.

Mr Raisi had been on the border with Azerbaijan early on Sunday to inaugurate a dam with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev.

The dam is the third one that the two nations built on the Aras River.

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

Under Mr Raisi, Iran now enriches uranium at nearly weapons-grade levels and hampers international inspections.

Iran has armed Russia in its war on Ukraine, as well as launched a massive drone-and-missile attack on Israel amid its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

It also has continued arming proxy groups in the Middle East, like Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.