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Iranians mourn president killed in helicopter crash

A truck carrying the bodies of Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi and seven members of his entourage winds its way through huge crowds in the northwestern city of Tabriz, where he was headed when he died in a Sunday helicopter crash
— Tehran (AFP)

Tens of thousands mourned Iran's president Ebrahim Raisi on Tuesday after his death in a helicopter crash, amid political uncertainty ahead of an election for his successor next month.

Raisi and seven members of his entourage including foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian were killed when their aircraft came down on a fog-shrouded mountainside in northern Iran on Sunday.

Waving Iranian flags and portraits of the late president, mourners marched in the northwestern city of Tabriz, where Raisi's helicopter had been headed when it crashed.

Black-clad mourners beat their chests as they walked behind a lorry carrying the coffins of Raisi and those who died with him.

"We, the members of the government, who had the honour to serve this beloved president, the hardworking president, pledge to our dear people and leader to follow the path of these martyrs," Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said in a speech.

The late president under a portrait of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the man he had been expected to succeed

From Tabriz, Raisi's body was taken to the Shiite clerical centre of Qom later Tuesday before being moved to Tehran, where huge banners hailing him as "the martyr of service" have appeared around the city.

In Qom, the procession moved toward the city's main shrine of Massoumeh as mourners waved the Shiite red flag and the yellow flag of the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group.

The official IRNA news agency said the funerals in Iran were attended by "hundreds of thousands" of people.

Contact with Raisi's helicopter was lost in bad weather on the return flight to Tabriz after the inauguration of a joint dam project on Iran's border with Azerbaijan, in a ceremony with his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev.

A huge search and rescue operation was launched, and state television announced his death early on Monday.

- National mourning -

Over pictures of Raisi and as a voice recited Koranic verses, the broadcaster said "the servant of the Iranian nation, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, has achieved the highest level of martyrdom".

Mourners reach out to touch the coffins as the funeral procession passes through the streets of Tabriz

As well as the president and foreign minister, provincial officials, members of Raisi's security team and the helicopter crew all died in the crash.

Armed forces chief of staff Mohammad Bagheri ordered an investigation into the crash as Iranians nationwide mourned Raisi and his entourage.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in the capital's Valiasr Square on Monday.

Iran's highest security body, the Supreme National Security Council, said the "vast presence" of mourners at the funeral "guaranteed the stability and national security of the Islamic republic".

On Tuesday, the Assembly of Experts, a key clerical body in charge of selecting or dismissing Iran's supreme leader, held its first session since being elected in March, with the seat reserved for Raisi carrying his portrait.

Raisi, who was widely expected to succeed current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had been a member of the body since 2006.

Mourners holding photographs of the late president gather on Monday evening in Tehran's Valiasr Square

Khamenei wields ultimate authority in Iran, and has declared five days of national mourning.

He has assigned vice president Mohammad Mokhber, 68, as caretaker president until the June 28 election for Raisi's successor.

Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri, who was Amir-Abdollahian's deputy, has been named acting foreign minister.

- Home town funeral -

A ceremony for the crash victims will be held in Tehran at 8:00 pm (1630 GMT) Tuesday ahead of processions in the capital on Wednesday morning before Khamenei leads prayers at a farewell ceremony.

Mourners throng Valiasr Square in the heart of Tehran on Monday

Countries including Turkey and Russia have announced they will send representatives to the funeral.

Raisi's body will be flown from Tehran to his home city of Mashhad in the northeast, where he will be buried on Thursday evening after funeral rites at the Imam Reza shrine.

Raisi, 63, was elected president in 2021. The ultra-conservative's time in office saw mass protests, a deepening economic crisis and unprecedented armed exchanges with arch-enemy Israel.

Raisi succeeded the moderate Hassan Rouhani at a time when the economy was battered by US sanctions imposed over Iran's nuclear activities.

Messages of condolence flooded in from Iran's allies around the region, including Syria, Palestinian militant group Hamas and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, both of which are backed by Tehran.

It was an unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel that sparked the devastating war in the Gaza Strip, now in its eighth month, and soaring tensions between Israel and the "resistance axis" led by Iran.

Israel's presumed killing of seven Revolutionary Guards in a drone strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1 triggered Iran's first ever direct attack on Israel, involving hundreds of missiles and drones.

Rescue team members work at the crash site of Raisi's helicopter

In a speech just hours before his death, Raisi underlined Iran's support for the Palestinians, a centrepiece of its foreign policy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Palestinian flags have flown alongside Iranian flags at ceremonies held for the late president.

Tribute was also paid to Raisi by a China-led regional bloc on Tuesday.

Envoys from Russia, China, India and Pakistan were among those who stood for a minute's silence at a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Astana, Kazakhstan.