Ukraine says US has given it 'important' evidence

Iranian bulldozers clear plane crash site before Ukrainian investigators arrive

Tehran continues to claim crash was an accident as Pompeo joins Western officials insisting they have evidence that Ukrainian airliner was shot down by an Iranian missile

A bulldozer seen working as rescue workers search the scene where an Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, January 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
A bulldozer seen working as rescue workers search the scene where an Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, January 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Iran has used bulldozers to clear away debris at the site of Ukrainian airliner crash, potentially destroying evidence as Tehran continues to deny Western allegations that one of its own missiles downed the jet, killing all 176 people on board.

Photos from the site show at least one bulldozer clearing away wreckage and Giancarlo Fiorella of Bellingcat, a journalism website that focuses on fact-finding, said the group had verified pictures of other bulldozers at work at the scene, calling it “distressing.”

“It’s distressing, this is a potential crime scene, if this was a shoot down you don’t want to disturb the crash site before a thorough investigation has taken place,” he told the UK’s Channel 4 news. “The presence of heavy machinery, the bulldozing of the wreckage is very distressing.”

The Daily Mail also published several more pictures of bulldozers at work at the scene and said the site was now vulnerable to scavengers.

Iran on Friday denied Western allegations that one of its own missiles downed a Ukrainian jetliner that crashed outside Tehran, and called on the US and Canada to share any information they have on the crash, which killed all 176 people on board.

Western leaders said the plane appeared to have been unintentionally hit by a surface-to-air missile just hours after Iran launched around a dozen ballistic missiles at two US bases in Iraq to avenge the killing of its top general in an American airstrike last week.

The US promised “appropriate action” Friday in response to its assessment that an Iranian missile was responsible for downing a Ukrainian jetliner that crashed outside Tehran, as the Iranian government denied playing a role in the killing of all 176 people on board.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the highest-level US official to directly pin the blame on Iran, after Canadian, Australian and British leaders announced similar intelligence conclusions Thursday.

“We do believe it is likely that that plane was shot down by an Iranian missile,” he said.

Pompeo said an investigation would continue into the incident and that once it was complete he was “confident that we and the world will take appropriate action as a response.”

Iran has rejected the accusations.

“What is obvious for us, and what we can say with certainty, is that no missile hit the plane,” Ali Abedzadeh, head of Iran’s national aviation department, told a press conference.

“If they are really sure, they should come and show their findings to the world” in accordance with international standards, he added.

Hassan Rezaeifar, the head of the Iranian investigation team, said recovering data from the black box flight recorders could take more than a month and that the entire investigation could stretch into next year. He also said Iran may request help from international experts if it is not able to extract the flight recordings.

The ballistic missile attack on the bases housing US troops in Iraq caused no casualties, raising hopes that the standoff over the killing of general Qassem Soleimani would end relatively quickly, though Iran has sent mixed signals over whether its retaliation is complete.

If the US or Canada were to present incontrovertible evidence that the plane was shot down by Iran, even if unintentionally, it could have a dramatic impact on public opinion in Iran.

The Iranian public had rallied around the leadership after the killing of Soleimani last Friday, with hundreds of thousands joining the general’s funeral processions in several cities, in an unprecedented display of grief and unity.

Coffins of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and others who were killed in Iraq by a US drone strike are carried on a truck surrounded by mourners during a funeral procession in the city of Mashhad, Iran, January 5, 2020. (Mohammad Hossein Thaghi/Tasnim News Agency via AP)

But sentiments in Iran are still raw over the government’s crackdown on large-scale protests late last year sparked by an economic crisis exacerbated by US sanctions. Several hundred protesters were reported to have been killed in the clampdown.

Those fissures could quickly break open again if Iranian authorities are seen to be responsible for the deaths of 176 people, mainly Iranians or dual Iranian-Canadian citizens. Iran still points to the accidental downing of an Iranian passenger jet by US forces in 1988 — which killed all 290 people aboard — as proof of American hostility.

US, Canadian and British officials said Thursday it is “highly likely” that Iran shot down the Boeing 737, which crashed near Tehran early Wednesday. US officials said the jetliner might have been mistakenly identified as a threat.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose country lost at least 63 citizens in the downing, said “we have intelligence from multiple sources including our allies and our own intelligence.”

Members of Montreal’s Iranian community attend a vigil, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2019 in downtown Montreal (Andrej Ivanov/The Canadian Press via AP)

“The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile,” Trudeau said.

The US officials did not say what intelligence they had that pointed to an Iranian missile, believed to be fired by a Russian Tor system, known to NATO as the SA-15. But they acknowledged the existence of satellites and other sensors in the region, as well as the likelihood of communication interceptions and other similar intelligence.

Western countries may hesitate to share information on such a strike because it comes from highly classified sources.

However, US officials have given Kiev “important” information about the crash of a Ukrainian airliner in Iran, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday after phone talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Zelensky said on Facebook that the possibility the plane had been shot down by a missile was not ruled out “but it has not yet been confirmed.”

Rescue workers carry the body of a victim of a Ukrainian plane crash in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Jan. 8, 2020 (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

He asked for Ukraine to be given all the information needed to conduct a thorough investigation.

“Our goal is to establish the undeniable truth,” he said. “The value of human life is above all political motives.”

In a phone call with Pompeo, he thanked Washington for its support.

Speaking on Fox News on Thursday, Pompeo had urged Iran to cooperate in the probe.

“I hope that the Iranians will cooperate with it completely,” he said.

“We’ve got to get to the bottom of it, and it’s important that we get to the bottom of it quickly.”

Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defense council, said Thursday that investigators were pursuing several leads, including a strike with a surface-to-air missile such as a Russian-made Tor, a collision with a drone, engine failure or a terror attack.

Russia’s Interstate Aviation Committee, which investigates aircraft incidents, said Friday it was ready to assist in the probe but that Iran had not asked Moscow for help.

In an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham aired late Thursday, Pompeo said the crash may have been caused by a “mechanical failure” but that commercial airliners need to know if it is safe to fly into and out of Tehran.

“If the international community needs to shut down that airport, so be it,” he said. “We need to get to the bottom of this very, very quickly.”

Germany’s Lufthansa airline said it and subsidiaries are canceling flights to and from Tehran for the next 10 days as a precautionary measure, citing the “unclear security situation for the airspace around Tehran airport.” Other airlines have been making changes to avoid Iranian airspace.

Britain’s Foreign Office has advised against all travel to Iran, and against all air travel to, from or within the country.

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