Rescue teams amid the wreckage after a Ukrainian plane crashed near Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran, Iran, early on January 8 2020. Picture: ISNA/AFP/BORNA GHASSEMI
Rescue teams amid the wreckage after a Ukrainian plane crashed near Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran, Iran, early on January 8 2020. Picture: ISNA/AFP/BORNA GHASSEMI

Washington — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Thursday that evidence suggests that a Ukrainian jet was hit by an Iranian missile before it crashed in Tehran and called for an international probe of the disaster.

“We have intelligence from multiple sources, including our allies and our own intelligence. The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile,” Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa. “This may well have been unintentional.”

More than a third of the 176 people aboard Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 were from Canada when it plunged from the sky about two minutes after a predawn takeoff. The Boeing 737-800 was on fire, according to witnesses on the ground and in other aircraft, cited in a preliminary Iranian report on the crash.

US intelligence officials also increasingly believe that the Ukrainian jet that fell from the sky after taking off from Tehran on Wednesday was shot down by a missile, according to two people familiar with the evidence.

Two surface-to-air missile launches were detected from an Iranian battery minutes after the jet took off, followed by an explosion near the plane, said one of the people. The jet carrying 176 people began an abrupt descent and crashed in a huge fireball.

Ali Abedzadeh, head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation, said “it’s not possible” for an Iranian rocket to have hit the aircraft.

“There’s a very defined relationship in Iran between military and civilian structures and its based on the regulations of the international civil aviation authority to which we comply, like all other countries,” he said in an interview on Iranian TV.

Amid calls for an investigation, the presidents of Ukraine and Iran agreed to form a joint panel to probe the crash and Iran filed the notification necessary under a UN  treaty to invite other nations — including the US — to aid with the probe.

Rapid descent

The US government has obtained evidence indicating that the rapid descent was not the result of a mechanical issue on the plane or errors by the pilots, said the people, who asked not to be named discussing intelligence reports.

Two SA-15 missiles are suspected of crippling the jet, said one of the people. The Russian-made missile, also known as a Gauntlet or a Tor, is a short-range weapon designed to attack planes, helicopters and other airborne targets. The launches were detected by a US spy satellite and occurred from a known missile battery near the airport, the person said.

Boeing rose as much as 3.1% and traded up 1.7% to $336.83 at 3.10pm in New York on the news. If the jet was brought down by a missile strike it could rule out a mechanical failure that would affect other Boeing planes.

“Our country is interested to find out the truth,” the Ukrainian president’s office said in a statement. “So we address all Ukraine’s international partners: if you have evidences that can help the investigation, please provide them.”

It said 45 Ukraine experts were working in Iran on the investigation and there are “several versions” for the cause under consideration.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his Ukranian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, spoke by phone on Thursday and agreed to form a task force involving their transport officials and foreign ministries, the semi-official Fars news agency reported, citing Rouhani’s deputy head of communications.

Hassan Rezaeifar, head of an Iranian joint investigation commission on the crash, denied earlier Thursday reports that evidence of a missile strike had been found at the crash site, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

The intelligence assessment is consistent with what some aviation accident experts have said. The apparent rapid spread of the fire combined with the sudden halt of radio transmissions from the aircraft after a normal climb are not consistent with previous crashes, said Jeffrey Guzzetti, the former head of accident investigations at the Federal Aviation Administration.

While Iranian officials initially said they suspected a problem with one of the plane’s engines, they retracted that in a preliminary report issued Thursday. The government also took the unusual step of setting up an investigative group to examine whether “any unlawful actions” initiated the fire on the plane, the preliminary report said.

Iran notified the International Civil Aviation Organisation, an arm of the UN, about the crash, which should trigger involvement of other nations in the investigation, including the US, the agency said in a press release on Thursday.

Under rules known as Annex 13, the nation in which a crash occurs usually is in charge of an investigation. Other nations are permitted to take part, such as the country in which the plane was made. Since Boeing manufactured the Ukrainian jet, the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) would have a right to participate.

“Ukraine, as the operator country of the plane is obliged to co-operate with us and share the plane’s necessary data for investigation,” Adelzadeh, the Iranian aviation official, said in a TV interview Thursday. “Others can also join in investigations.”

He said France, where the engines were made, the US and Canada, due to its loss of life on the plane, had all been notified and can take part.

“France, Canada and the NTSB of the US have expressed their readiness and introduced their representatives for co-operation,” he said.

However, the NTSB said in a statement Wednesday that federal restrictions on dealings with Iran prevent it from taking part. The US Treasury has granted waivers for US investigators to work in Iran in the past, but it has been a cumbersome process. In the past, the NTSB has declined to send investigators to countries it deems unsafe.

The UK called for a full investigation into the crash.

“There needs to be a full, credible and transparent investigation into what happened. We want to see that happen as soon as possible,” Jamie Davies, spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, said in London. “Reports we’ve seen are extremely concerning and we’re looking into them.”

Johnson spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Thursday and expressed his condolences, Davies said. “The prime minister offered support and will be working with Ukraine on how best to support them.”

US President Donald Trump, speaking to reporters in Washington on Thursday, said “I have my suspicions” about why the plane went down but said he did not want to say what those suspicions are.

“It was flying in a pretty rough neighbourhood,” Trump said. “Somebody could have made a mistake.”

Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, said at the UN that his country wants to play a role in the investigation.

“We insist Iran give us full access to the investigation and to the materials of the investigation and I call on everyone to avoid any speculations,” Kyslytsya said. “It’s a huge tragedy and it concerns the lives of many, many families and we shouldn’t really play with conspiracy theories.”

Bloomberg