- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2020

A Ukrainian commercial airliner that crashed Tuesday evening near Tehran, killing all 176 people on board, was almost certainly brought down by a Russian-made Iranian surface-to-air missile rather than maintenance or mechanical mishap, U.S. and Canadian leaders said Thursday, citing emerging intelligence on the incident.

Suspicions about the fiery crash emerged almost as soon as the news broke — just hours after the Iranian military launched a broad salvo of missiles at U.S. and allied troop positions inside Iraq and Tehran and the world waited to see whether President Trump would respond.

Most of the passengers aboard the flight from Tehran to Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv were Iranian citizens, but some 63 were from Canada, most returning from holiday visits with family.

“We have intelligence from multiple sources, including our allies and our own intelligence,” a somber Canadian President Justin Trudeau said in a national address. “The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. This may well have been unintentional.”

“Canadians have questions, and they deserve answers,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa.

President Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pointed to what Mr. Johnson called a “growing body of evidence” that an Iranian missile brought down the plane, perhaps mistaking it for an incoming U.S. missile.

Iranian officials have said they would cooperate with an international investigation into the crash while again slamming the U.S. for pushing the “false” missile theory.

In a statement late Thursday carried on Iran’s IRNA news service, the government said it would conduct an open investigation and will “welcome presence of the relevant states whose nationals were killed in the bitter incident in the process of investigation.” Significantly, Tehran claimed it was ready to allow representatives from Boeing to “engage in examining [the plane’s] black box.”

The Iranian statement condemned what it called a well-calculated move in psychological operations by the Pentagon to push the missile story.

“It is regrettable that the U.S. government’s psychological operations system and its informed or uninformed allies are adding salt to the pains of the bereaved families with these lies,” the statement said.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke by phone with Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky, and Tehran has said it would cooperate with Ukrainian officials investigating the crash.

If confirmed, the shootdown would cap a staggering week of losses and disasters for the Iranian people since an American airstrike killed senior Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani. More than 50 mourners were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede at the general’s funeral in his hometown of Kerman. At least 19 more were killed when a bus plunged into a ravine in a northern Iranian town Wednesday.

Trump ‘suspicions’

As Iran and the U.S. apparently were stepping back from direct conflict, Mr. Trump acknowledged his “suspicions” about the plane crash but suggested the plane was targeted in error.

“Somebody could have made a mistake on the other side,” he said. “It has nothing to do with us. It was flying in a pretty rough neighborhood, and somebody could have made a mistake.”

Mr. Trudeau said it was critical for Canadian air safety specialists to have access to the crash site. His government was reaching out to Iranian officials to press their claim for a role.

The news was also jarring in Kyiv. Ukraine’s airline boasted a stellar safety record, and the crash outside Tehran was the carrier’s first in almost 30 years of flying. The Boeing 737-800 was new when Ukraine International Airlines purchased it in 2016. It had gone through a complete maintenance check two days before it went down.

“For both our countries, it’s a shared pain. Our thoughts are with the families of the citizens of Canada who died in the crash,” Mr. Zelensky said on his Twitter page.

Ukrainian airline officials were quick to reject initial Iranian suggestions that a combination of mechanical troubles and pilot error was to blame.

“Given the crew’s experience, error probability is minimal. We do not even consider such a chance,” Yevhen Dykhne, president of Ukraine International Airlines, told The Associated Press.

Officials from Canada’s foreign ministry reached out to their counterparts in Tehran to protest Iran’s missile attack on the bases in Iraq where some of their own soldiers were at the time.

“The families of the victims and all Canadians want answers. I want answers,” Mr. Trudeau said.

The airplane struck the ground near the town of Shahedshahr, causing fires that lit up the night and startling local residents. Unconfirmed video from the area appeared to show a dot of light tracking into the sky before causing a flash of light as it hit the plane. Most carriers had curtailed flights in the region as U.S.-Iranian tensions soared. It was not clear why a commercial flight was departing the Tehran region at such a sensitive time.

Din Mohammad Qassemi told AP he was watching news accounts of Iran’s missile strikes into Iraq when the heard the explosion.

All the houses in the area started shaking, and fires seemed to erupt everywhere, he said.

“At first, I thought [the Americans] have hit here with missiles, and I went into the basement,” Mr. Qassemi said. “After a while, I went out and saw a plane has crashed over there. Body parts were lying around everywhere.”

In addition to the Iranian and Canadian victims, travelers from Sweden, Germany, the United Kingdom and Afghanistan were aboard the flight, officials said.

“The final list of citizens is still being specified,” Ukrainian officials said in a government statement.

If true, the Ukrainian airliner wouldn’t be the first to be shot down by a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile. In July 2014, a Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was hit by a missile from a Buk anti-aircraft system while flying over a section of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian rebels. Nearly 300 people were aboard the flight, and there were no survivors.

A Dutch-led investigation eventually determined that Russia was at fault for installing the anti-aircraft system, but officials in Moscow have continued to deny any responsibility.

• Dave Boyer and Ben Wolfgang contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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