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'Highly likely' Iran accidentally shot down Ukraine airliner, US officials say

The plane crashed outside Tehran with the loss of all 176 people on board.

Rescuers search the debris at the crash site.
Rescuers search the debris at the crash site.
Image: DPA/PA Images

Updated Jan 9th 2020, 9:10 PM

IT IS “HIGHLY likely” that an Iranian anti-aircraft missile accidentally brought down a Ukrainian passenger plane yesterday, two US officials have said.

Newsweek, CBS and CNN quoted unnamed officials saying they are increasingly confident that Iranian air defence systems accidentally downed the aircraft, based on satellite, radar and electronic data.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, said evidence indicates an Iranian missile downed the plane and that the strike “may have been unintentional”.

Trudeau said Canadian and allied intelligence supports that. 

Earlier today, Iranian authorities said a Ukrainian airliner, which crashed outside Tehran with the loss of all 176 people on board, had turned back after suffering a problem.

The officials said they had no certain knowledge of Iranian intent but said it could have been a mistake and that the airliner was mistaken for a threat.

Both Canada and the United States called for a full investigation to determine the cause of yesterday’s crash, which came shortly after Tehran launched missiles at US forces in Iraq in response to the killing of a top Iranian general in a US drone strike in Baghdad.

There was no immediate indication that foul play may have caused the Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) plane to go down soon after take-off, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned against speculating on the crash causes.

“The plane, which was initially headed west to leave the airport zone, turned right following a problem and was headed back to the airport at the moment of the crash,” the Iranian Civil Aviation Organisation said on its website late last night. 

“The plane disappeared from radar screens the moment it reached 8,000 feet (2,400 metres). The pilot sent no radio message about the unusual circumstances.

“According to eyewitnesses, a fire was seen on board the plane which grew in intensity,” the organisation added, reporting the first findings of its investigation into the crash.

The organisation said it was considering evidence from the ground as well as reports from a second aircraft which was flying above the Ukrainian Boeing 737 as the disaster unfolded.

US President Donald Trump, meanwhile, said “I have my suspicions” over the plane. “Somebody could have made a mistake,” he said.

“Somebody could have made a mistake on the other side,” Trump said, noting the plane was flying in a “pretty rough neighbourhood”.

“Some people say it was mechanical,” Trump added.

“I personally don’t think that’s even a question.”

The US officials would not say what intelligence they have that points to an Iranian missile.

But they acknowledged the existence of satellites and other sensors in the region, as well as the likelihood of communications intercepts and other similar intelligence.

The US assessment comes after a preliminary Iranian investigative report released on Thursday said the pilots never made a radio call for help and claimed the aircraft was trying to turn back for the airport when the burning plane went down.

Contains reporting from Press Association. 

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