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Official says rescuers see helicopter that was carrying Iran’s president

In this photo provided by Moj News Agency, rescue teams’ vehicles are seen near the site of the incident of the helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Varzaghan in northwestern Iran (Azin Haghighi, Moj News Agency via AP)
In this photo provided by Moj News Agency, rescue teams’ vehicles are seen near the site of the incident of the helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Varzaghan in northwestern Iran (Azin Haghighi, Moj News Agency via AP)

Rescuers have located a helicopter that was carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s foreign minister and other officials that had apparently crashed in the mountainous northwest reaches of Iran the day before.

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

Officials had been missing at that point by more than 12 hours.

The incident comes after 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, 375 miles northwest of the Iranian capital, Tehran.

Later, state TV put it farther east near the village of Uzi, but details remained contradictory.

Traveling with Mr Raisi were Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, 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”.

Iran
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (Mert Gokhan Koc/AP)

Neither IRNA nor state TV offered any information on Mr Raisi’s condition in the hours afterward.

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

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.

State television’s main channel aired the prayers nonstop.

Iranian pilgrims pray for President Ebrahim Raisi at Imam Reza Shrine in the city of Mashhad
Iranian pilgrims pray for President Ebrahim Raisi at Imam Reza Shrine in the city of Mashhad (Mohammad Hasan Salavati/Shahraranews via AP)

In comments aired on state TV, interior minister Ahmad Vahidi said: “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 the 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.”

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.

A rescue helicopter tried to reach the area where authorities believe Mr Raisi’s helicopter was, but it could not land due to heavy mist, emergency services spokesman Babak Yektaparast told IRNA.

Late in the evening, Turkey’s defence ministry announced that it had sent an unmanned arial vehicle and was preparing to send a helicopter with night vision capabilities to join the search-and-rescue efforts.

An Iranian state TV newsreader reads news on an incident of a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in north-western Iran
An Iranian state TV newsreader reads news on an incident of a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in north-western Iran (Vahid Salemi/AP)

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.