The US government believes Iran accidentally shot down a Ukraine airliner that crashed in Iran, killing all 176 people aboard, officials say.
Citing an extensive review of satellite data, one US official told Reuters news agency the government had concluded with a high degree of certainty that Iranian anti-aircraft missiles brought down the plane.
Officials said the plane had been tracked by Iranian radar before the missiles were fired.
The data showed the Ukrainian International Airlines Boeing 737-800 bound for Kiev was airborne for two minutes after departing Tehran when the heat signatures of two surface-to-air missiles were detected, one of the officials said.
That was quickly followed by an explosion in the vicinity of the plane, this official said. Heat signature data then showed the plane on fire as it went down.
The three officials said Washington believed the downing of the plane was an accident. It occurred shortly after Iran had fired missiles at two US military bases in Iraq and Iranians were on high alert for a US military response.
The head of Iran’s of Civil Aviation Organisation denied “illogical rumours” that a Ukrainian airliner that crashed near Tehran had been hit by a missile, the semi-official news agency ISNA reported.
“Scientifically, it is impossible that a missile hit the Ukrainian plane, and such rumours are illogical,” Ali Abedzadeh said.
The reports come after Ukraine outlined four potential scenarios today to explain the deadly crash, including a missile strike and terrorism.
Iranian investigators have said the plane was on fire before it fell to the ground.
Kiev said its investigators wanted to search the site of the crash southwest of Tehran for possible debris of a Russian-made missile used by Iran’s military.
An initial report by Iran’s civil aviation organisation said the plane had experienced an unspecified technical problem.
The Ukrainian International Airlines Boeing 737-800, flying to Kiev and carrying mostly Iranians and Iranian-Canadians, crashed shortly after taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport.
The Iranian report cited witnesses on the ground and in a passing aircraft flying at a high altitude as saying the plane was on fire while in the air.
It said the three-year-old airliner, which had its last scheduled maintenance on Tuesday, encountered a technical problem shortly after take-off and started to head toward a nearby airport before it crashed. The report said there was no radio communication from the pilot and that the aircraft disappeared from radar at 8000 feet (2440m).
The disaster puts a renewed spotlight on Boeing, which faces a safety crisis over a different type of 737, though the plane that crashed in Iran does not have the feature thought to have caused crashes of the grounded 737 MAX.
The Iranian report referred to the crash as an accident.
Investigations into airliner crashes are complex, requiring regulators, experts and companies across several international jurisdictions to work together. It can take months to fully determine the cause and issuing an initial report within 24 hours is rare.
A Canadian security source told Reuters there was evidence one of the engines had overheated.
The crash happened hours after Iran launched missile attacks on US-led forces in Iraq, leading some to speculate that the plane may have been hit.
The initial assessment of Western intelligence agencies was that the plane had suffered a technical malfunction and had not been brought down by a missile, five security sources – three Americans, one European and the Canadian – who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
Ukraine Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danylov said the country’s investigators wanted to search for possible Russian missile debris after seeing information on the internet.
He referred to an unverified image circulated on Iranian social media purportedly showing the debris of a Russian-made Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile of the kind used by the Iranian military.
Ukrainian investigators into the crash include experts who participated in the investigation into the 2014 shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, Danylov said.
The Malaysian airliner was shot down on July 17, 2014, over territory held by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine as it was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board.
In a televised statement, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy earlier asked people to refrain from speculation, conspiracy theories and hasty evaluations regarding the crash. He declared today a day of national mourning.
Zelenskiy said he would speak by telephone with the Iranian president to step up cooperation in investigating the crash.
Ukraine is looking at various possible causes, including a missile attack, a collision, an engine explosion or terrorism.
Countries recognised under a UN-administered convention as participants should nominate who they wish to be involved in the Iran-led investigation, the Iranian report said.
Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne called his Iranian counterpart to stress the need for Canadian officials “to be quickly granted access to Iran to provide consular services, help with identification of the deceased and take part in the investigation of the crash”, a Canadian statement said.
“Canada and Canadians have many questions, which will need to be answered.”
Britain wants a transparent investigation, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said today, following a call between the British leader and Zelenskiy.
“The prime minister said that there needed to be a full credible and transparent investigation into what happened,” the spokesman said.
As the country where the plane was designed and built, the United States would usually be allowed to be accredited but neither side has said whether US investigators will be dispatched to Iran.
Iran’s aviation body could not be reached for comment to clarify its position.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran have risen with the United States’ killing of a top Iranian general on Friday. Tehran retaliated with a missile strike on US targets in Iraq.
The Ukrainian airliner took off at 6.12am local time and was given permission to climb to 26,000 feet, the report said. It crashed six minutes later near the town of Sabashahr.
Bodies and body parts recovered from the site of the crash have been taken to the coroner’s office for identification, the report said.
Smouldering debris, including shoes and clothes, was strewn across a field where the plane crashed. Rescue workers in face masks laid out scores of body bags.
Onboard were 146 Iranians, 10 Afghans, 11 Ukrainians, five Canadians and four Swedes, the report said, but said some may have held citizenship of other countries.
Ukrainian authorities have said those on board included 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, and 11 Ukrainians.
-BBC/Reuters. This story appeared on RNZ