U.S. Believes Ukraine Plane Was Shot Down By Iran (Updated)
The U.S. has a ‘high level of confidence’ in the assessment, official says; shape of debris field and Iranian radar provide clues. U.S. Believes Ukraine Plane Was Shot Down By Iran
The U.S. believes that a Ukrainian commercial aircraft that crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran on Wednesday was downed by two surface-to-air missiles fired by Iran, a U.S. official said.
“We have a high level of confidence that this was shot down by Iran,” the U.S. official said, adding that the plane was being followed by Iranian radar used to aim missiles just before two were fired.
A second U.S. official said the U.S. believes Iran may have shot down the aircraft by mistake.
One factor contributing to the U.S. assessment that the plane had been shot down was the large field of debris at the crash site, the second official said. Planes that crash as a result of mechanical failure have narrower debris fields, that official said.
President Trump on Thursday said “I have my suspicions” about the crash, voicing doubt in remarks at the White House that the cause may have been mechanical problems.
“I personally don’t think that’s even a question, personally,” he said. “It was flying in a pretty rough neighborhood and somebody could have made a mistake.”
The Ukraine International Airlines jetliner crash Wednesday killed all 176 passengers and crew members on board. The Boeing Co. 737-800 single-aisle plane departed the Iranian capital’s Imam Khomeini International Airport en route to Kyiv, Ukraine.
The crash came hours after Iran launched missile attacks on U.S. troops at two Iraqi bases in retaliation for the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The timing of those attacks raised questions about whether the Ukrainian airliner was downed by a projectile.
“Ukraine is interested in finding the truth. Therefore, I ask all our international partners: if you have any evidence to assist the investigation, please provide it,” said a spokeswoman for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
A spokesperson for Ukraine International Airlines didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The investigation into what downed the jet is expected to be particularly thorny, with heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran over the killing of the top Iranian general likely to complicate international cooperation.
Spokesmen for the Iranian government and its civil aviation regulator couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on the U.S. claim that the Ukranian plane was shot down.
Iran earlier rejected the notion of a hostile act. “Since the Ukrainian pilot was trying to return to the airport, a rocket, missile strike or the country’s defense system is out of question,” said Hassan Rezaifar, head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization commission for accidents investigation, quoted by Iran’s state news agency. “No missile part was found in the crash scene.”
Iranian officials, quoted by the state news agency, said the plane had suffered a technical fault, that it had started to turn back in the direction of Tehran airport and was already on fire before it hit the ground. They said the jet had reached 8,000 feet before disappearing from radar.
Ukrainian officials earlier said they were considering a number of possible scenarios. Those include a strike by an antiaircraft missile, a collision with a drone, an engine explosion or a blast inside the aircraft as a result of a terrorist attack.
A U.S. official familiar with the matter said Wednesday that data transmitted via satellite indicated everything was normal on the jetliner until the sudden loss of data and the fatal dive. That data suggest to some U.S. air-safety officials that there may have been some sort of hostile act, said the person.
The last high-profile shootdown of a commercial airliner occurred in eastern Ukraine in 2014, when pro-Russian separatists battling the central government downed a Malaysian plane with a surface-to-air missile. All 298 people on board the Boeing 777 died. International investigators said later the missile was Russian-made.
In 1988, the U.S. Navy’s Vincennes warship downed Iran Air Flight 655 with an air-defense missile. U.S. officials said they mistook the Airbus SE A300 airliner for a combat plane they feared would attack the ship. All 290 people on the plane died.
A report from the Iranian civil aviation regulator said the search operation for the Ukrainian jet found the so-called black boxes, including the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder. Both caught fire in the crash and were damaged, but the memory of the recorders remained in good condition, the report said.
A team of 45 Ukrainian experts and officials arrived in Tehran early Thursday and will be involved in decoding the black boxes and identifying and repatriating bodies. The team had already collected DNA samples from relatives of the victims in Ukraine.
“The priority for Ukraine is to establish the causes of the crash,” Mr. Zelensky said. Ukraine said the president spoke by phone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who pledged full cooperation in the investigation, including sharing all data with Ukrainian officials on the ground in Tehran.
However, it wasn’t clear how much access U.S. investigators will get to the crash site. Iran’s Mr. Rezaifar said the probe would be conducted to international standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization. That would indicate U.S. companies and entities could be involved.
However, Ali Abedzadeh, head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, told the semiofficial Mehr News Agency on Wednesday that his organization wouldn’t provide Boeing or the U.S. access to the black box.
Based on the International Civil Aviation Organization’s convention, the home country of the airline and the makers of the plane and its major systems are each entitled to appoint a representative to participate in crash probes.
Boeing has said it is in contact with Ukraine International Airlines and is ready to assist in any way. Determining what went wrong is critical to the plane maker, which already is dealing with the grounding of its best-selling 737 MAX fleet after two fatal crashes involving that jet.
The plane that crashed, a 737-800, is the most popular version of the aerospace giant’s workhorse jet. The model and its variants account for around 25% of all commercial jetliners in operation, enjoying one of the industry’s best safety records.
Iran Blames Downing of Ukrainian Jet on Human Error
Iranian officials had initially denied claims by Western officials that the jet was downed by a missile system fired by Iran.
Iran blamed human error for the downing of the Ukrainian airliner outside an airport in Tehran, as Kyiv demanded justice and compensation for the 176 people on board who died.
Iranian officials had initially denied claims by Western officials that the Boeing Co. 737-800 single-aisle jet was downed by a missile system fired by Iran, possibly by mistake. The announcement of the military’s culpability triggered anger in Tehran, where security forces fired tear gas to disperse crowds who took to the streets in protest.
The Ukraine International Airlines jet crashed Wednesday four hours after Iran had launched military strikes against the U.S. in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of a top general, and the Middle Eastern state was on high alert for a potential U.S. response.
A junior officer made a mistake, Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s Aerospace Force, told Iranian state television Saturday.
Gen. Hajizadeh, who oversees most of Iran’s missile arsenal, sought to insulate the country’s political leadership from criticism. He said missile-system operators were told to fire at U.S. or other enemy warplanes without seeking permission from senior commanders.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Kyiv insisted on an official apology by Iran and expects Tehran to punish those responsible.
“We expect from Iran assurances of a full and open investigation, bringing those responsible to justice, the return of the bodies of the dead, payment of compensation [and] official apologies through diplomatic channels,” Mr. Zelensky said in a statement.
Later Saturday, Mr. Zelensky told Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a phone call that “acknowledging plane shot down is a step in the right direction,” adding that “the perpetrators must be held accountable.”
The downing, which killed dozens of Iranians, places further pressure on Iran’s leadership, already challenged by U.S. sanctions that have prompted an economic crisis and widespread public protest.
Protesters gathered outside Amirkabir University of Technology in the capital, where some young men tore down posters of Maj. Gen. Qassem Solemaini, the prominent general who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad last week, before they were dispersed.
Iran is also facing possible international isolation as the U.S. intensifies the sanctions pressure on Iran in a bid to limit its nuclear program and what Washington says is Tehran’s regional interference. The two sides in recent days pulled back from conflict after Iran targeted U.S. forces in Iraq to avenge the killing of Gen. Soleimani.
Since the Iranian strikes, President Trump has said the U.S. didn’t plan to respond to Iran and that Iranian forces appeared to be standing down from further conflict.
Iran’s move to publicly disclose the mistake of shooting down the jet reflects an attempt to maintain its international credibility, particularly with European countries, many of whom are trying to provide it relief from sanctions and keep the 2015 nuclear deal alive. Relations with France, Germany and Britain have strained in recent months as Iran has stepped away from its deal commitments.
Mr. Rouhani tweeted that the downing was a “great tragedy & unforgivable mistake.”
Gen. Hajizadeh attempted to explain why Iran, until Saturday, had repeatedly denied the plane was shot down by a missile. Iranian investigators had said the jet likely crashed due to a technical error, as the pilot was attempting to return to Tehran’s main international airport when it hit the ground.
“The aviation authorities assumed that if a missile hits a plane, it should explode in the air,” Gen. Hajizadeh said. “One of our forces has made the mistake and because it’s under our command, the responsibility is on us.”
Iran’s prosecutor general, Mohammad-Jafar Montazeri, in a directive to Tehran’s military prosecutor, demanded “swift, meticulous” investigations to identify all the causes and individuals involved in the incident, according to the semiofficial ISNA news agency.
The Iranian acknowledgment rules out the role of any mechanical issue with the plane resulting in the disaster. That will lessen the importance of an international investigation, which was just starting to take shape.
Ukraine International Airlines said the flight was cleared for takeoff because it received no warning from the Tehran airport, pointing to other international flights that departed around the same time. It said the plane had not veered off its normal course.
A senior airline official blamed Iran for not closing the airport.
“It was absolutely irresponsible,” Ihor Sosnovskiy, the airline’s vice president for operations, told reporters. “If you’re playing war, you are obliged to close the airport. Then you can shoot all you want.”
Also on Saturday, Iranian investigators said they would send black-box data to France for analysis after determining that Iran doesn’t have the necessary technology to assess the data. Mr. Zelensky and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed in a phone call Saturday that French experts would help decode the black boxes, Mr. Zelensky’s office said.
It remains unclear if an international investigation would now be pressed. Iranian officials had invited investigators from Boeing, the U.S., Ukraine, France and Canada to probe the causes of Wednesday’s crash, which killed a number of Canadians. Boeing started preparing the necessary paperwork and has been in touch with both the State and Commerce departments, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.
Ukrainian officials said Saturday that their investigation on the ground in Tehran continues while the country’s prosecutor general’s office said it is working to identify any criminal acts that led to the crash.
For Iran, the crash comes after a convulsive few months. At least 59 people died this week in a stampede at a funeral march for Mr. Soleimani, the military commander killed by a U.S. strike.
In November, hundreds of demonstrators were killed by security forces, according to rights groups and Iran-based opposition media, when they rose up across the country in protest against government austerity measures, prompted partly by American sanctions. The security response was the deadliest in decades.
The downing of the Ukrainian jet isn’t the first time tensions between the U.S. and Iran have led to an aviation tragedy. In 1988, the U.S. Navy’s Vincennes warship downed Iran Air Flight 655 with an air-defense missile.
U.S. officials said they mistook the Airbus SE A300 airliner for a warplane they feared would attack the ship. All 290 people, mostly Iranian, on the plane died, prompting an outpouring of national grief in Iran.
Mr. Rouhani on Monday had hit back at Mr. Trump’s earlier threat to target 52 assets inside Iran, including sites of cultural importance, by referring to the 1988 incident. “Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290” Mr. Rouhani said on Twitter.
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