(Bloomberg) -- Iranian state television reported there was “no sign of life” at the crash site of a helicopter that was transporting President Ebrahim Raisi and went down in the northwest of the country.

Iranian emergency crews earlier located the site of the crash and reported seeing wreckage, state media said. The location is near Tavil village in northwest Iran.

Dense fog in the region had complicated the search effort, state media reported. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urged people to pray for Raisi’s health and said there “won’t be any disruption to the country’s affairs” as a result of the incident, according to a statement shown on state TV.

 

Raisi, an ultraconservative cleric in his 60s who won Iran’s presidential election in 2021, has been seen as a favorite to eventually succeed Supreme Leader Khamenei. 

The incident comes at a time of turmoil in the Middle East over the war in Gaza between Israel and Iran-backed Hamas — designated a terrorist organization by the US and European Union. It has edged Iran and Israel close to all-out conflict and led to other Tehran-supported groups, including the Houthis in Yemen and Shiite militias in Iraq, to attack US bases and commercial ships in the Red Sea.

Raisi’s air fleet consisted of three helicopters with high-ranking officials including Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported. Amirabdollahian was believed to be on board Raisi’s aircraft at the time.

The US is closely following reports of the incident, a State Department spokesperson said without further comment. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Sunday that intelligence agencies have informed him there is no evidence of foul play, NBC reported.    

‘Extremely Difficult’ Search

Almost 10 hours into the search, it was “extremely difficult” because of darkness and heavy fog and rain, Pirhossein Koulivand, head of Iran’s Emergency Medical Services, told state TV. Earlier, Iran’s interior minister, Ahmad Vahidi, said finding the president’s helicopter was likely to take time because of the adverse conditions.

Turkey’s state disaster management agency, AFAD, said Iran requested a search and rescue helicopter with night vision capabilities. Some 32 rescue and research personnel as well as six vehicles were also sent to Iran, AFAD said in a post on X.

The Turkish ministry of defense said it dispatched an Akinci drone in response to a request from Iran. It also said a Cougar helicopter remains on alert to be deployed depending on weather conditions.

The European Union activated its rapid response mapping service following a request for help from Iran, the bloc’s Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič, said in a post on X.

Iranian television aired live footage of scores of ambulances amid heavy rain and fog. A reporter, stationed near the rescue teams, mentioned the challenges in reaching the crash site, citing impassable roads due to mud and the remote nature of the area.

The broadcast also showed pilgrims praying for Raisi at the holy shrine in Mashhad, the northeastern city where Raisi was born. 

Others believed to be on board Raisi’s helicopter included the governor of East Azerbaijan province and the supreme leader’s representative in the city of Tabriz, Iranian media said. 

Both Raisi and Amirabdollahian oversaw the restoration of Iran’s diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia through a Chinese-brokered deal announced in March 2023. But it was a time when there was also a stalemate in negotiations to revive Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers and lift economic sanctions. 

Read more: Understanding the Dangerous Israel-Iran Conflict: QuickTake

Earlier Sunday, Raisi met his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev to inaugurate a jointly developed dam on the border between the two countries. The incident occurred while Raisi was returning from Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.

Raisi’s ascension to the presidency came after eight years under the relative moderate Hassan Rouhani, who was central to the nuclear accord that former President Donald Trump withdrew the US from in 2018. 

Read more: Iran Elects Hardliner as Nuclear Talks Enter Critical Phase

The US exit from the deal empowered Iran’s hardliners, who were always critical of the agreement. Raisi was sanctioned in 2019 by the Trump administration, which cited his role in a deadly crackdown a decade earlier on protesters alleging vote fraud. 

He’s also accused by rights groups of being instrumental in the mass execution of thousands of political dissidents in the late 1980s. In 2018, London-based Amnesty International said he presided over a “death commission” and called on the United Nations to investigate him for crimes against humanity. 

Raisi’s first Vice President is Mohammad Mokhber, who has represented Iran on many recent overseas trips and who like many senior Iranian officials is subject to US sanctions. 

--With assistance from Omar Tamo, Dana Khraiche, Golnar Motevalli, Alex Newman and Onur Ant.

(Updates with latest reports.)

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