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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi dies in chopper crash

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner long seen as a potential successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was killed in a helicopter crash in mountainous terrain near the Azerbaijan border, officials and state media said on Monday.

The charred wreckage of the helicopter which crashed on Sunday carrying Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian was found early on Monday after an overnight search in blizzard conditions.

“President Raisi, the foreign minister and all the passengers in the helicopter were killed in the crash,” a senior Iranian official told told news agency Reuters, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Raisi’s death was later confirmed in a statement on social media by Vice President Mohsen Mansouri and on state television.

State TV reported that images from the site showed the aircraft slammed into a mountain peak, although there was no official word on the cause of the crash.

State news agency IRNA said Raisi was flying in a U.S.-made Bell 212 helicopter.

Raisi, 63, was elected president in 2021, and since taking office has ordered a tightening of morality laws, overseen a bloody crackdown on anti-government protests and pushed hard in nuclear talks with world powers.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate power with a final say on foreign policy and Iran’s nuclear programme, had earlier sought to reassure Iranians, saying there would be no disruption to state affairs.

The helicopter, carrying President Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and other officials, lost contact approximately 30 minutes into the flight. This sparked immediate concerns and a massive search and rescue operation.

nitial reports from Iran’s state media described the situation as an “accident.” Iran’s Deputy President for Executive Affairs Mohsen Mansouri said that two members of the president’s entourage had contacted rescue teams, suggesting that the incident might not have been catastrophic. Mansouri added that the Ministry of Communications had managed to narrow down the potential crash site to within a two-kilometre radius.

Iranian state media reported that Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Diplomacy Mehdi Safari claimed that the Tabriz Friday prayer leader had managed to speak with President Raisi, 63, via phone from the downed helicopter. “Mehdi Safari, who was present in one of the three helicopters carrying President Raisi’s entourage, said the Tabriz Friday prayer leader had made a phone call to the president from inside the crashed copter,” the report reads. 

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged calm and assured that there would be no disruption in the country’s governance. “We hope that Almighty God will bring our dear president and his companions back in full health into the arms of the nation,” he stated in a televised address.

The search effort was, with more than 60 rescue teams, including army, Revolutionary Guard forces, and police units, scouring the foggy, mountainous terrain. The harsh weather conditions and heavy fog had significantly hampered these efforts. 

The international community had expressed concern and offered assistance. Neighbouring countries and organisations, including Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Russia, Turkey, and the European Union, have pledged support. The EU has even activated its rapid response mapping service to aid in the search efforts.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday expressed his condolences with a post on social media. “Deeply saddened and shocked by the tragic demise of Dr. Seyed Ebrahim Raisi, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. His contribution to strengthening India-Iran bilateral relationship will always be remembered. My heartfelt condolences to his family and the people of Iran. India stands with Iran in this time of sorrow,” PM Modi posted on X. 

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani conveyed gratitude for the international solidarity and offers of help. US President Joe Biden has been briefed on the situation, with a State Department spokesman confirming they are closely monitoring developments.

This incident follows a period of heightened regional tensions, particularly in light of the Gaza conflict and Iran’s recent escalations with Israel. President Raisi, who has been in office since 2021, has pledged Iran’s steadfast support for Palestine, a stance reiterated during his recent dam inauguration speech.

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