Video appears to show missile hitting Ukrainian plane near Tehran
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Video appears to show missile hitting Ukrainian plane near Tehran

UK says ‘body of information’ points to missile strike, possibly accidental, joining US and Canada; Iran denies hitting liner, asks Canada to share intel

In this Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020 photo a rescue worker searches the scene where a Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran. (AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)
In this Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020 photo a rescue worker searches the scene where a Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran. (AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Video appearing to show a missile hitting a Ukrainian jetliner shortly after takeoff in Tehran emerged Thursday as Western countries said evidence showed it was “highly likely” that Iranian anti-aircraft fire downed the plane a day earlier.

Iran cast doubt over the claims late Thursday, and asked Canada to share what evidence it had. It also invited the plane’s manufacturer Boeing to take part in the official inquiry into the crash, apparently reversing an earlier decision to not share black box information from the jet’s final moments.

The video, published by The New York Times and independent research outfit Bellingcat, appears to show a missile explode as it hits a low-flying object.

According to the Times, which said it verified the video, the missile only damaged the jet, causing it to burst into flames. It attempted to return to the Imam Khomenei airport south of Tehran, but crashed into the ground shortly after, killing all 176 people aboard.

The crash came just a few hours after Iran launched a ballistic attack against Iraqi military bases housing US troops amid a confrontation with Washington over the US drone strike that killed an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general.

Bellingcat said the video was taken from Parand, a suburb southwest of Tehran near the airport and below the plane’s flight path. The video was initially shared online publicly via Telegram and Twitter and a high resolution version was later obtained by The New York Times.

The Ukrainian International Airlines took off at 6:12 a.m. Wednesday, Tehran time, after nearly an hour’s delay at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport, the main airport for travelers in Iran. It gained altitude heading west, reaching nearly 8,000 feet, according to both an Iranian report on the crash Thursday and flight-tracking data.

Eyewitnesses, including the crew of another flight passing above, described seeing the plane engulfed in flames before crashing at 6:18 a.m., the Iranian report said. The crash caused a massive explosion when the plane hit the ground, likely because the aircraft had been fully loaded with fuel for the flight to Kyiv, Ukraine.

A second video appears to show the plane on fire as it attempts to return to the airport, before crashing into the ground.

The plane was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, at least 63 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. Many of the passengers were believed to be international students attending universities in Canada; they were making their way back to Toronto by way of Kyiv after visiting with family during the winter break.

US and Canadian officials said Thursday that evidence indicates it is “highly likely” that an Iranian anti-aircraft missile downed the Ukrainian jetliner near Tehran. They said the strike, which killed all 176 people on board, could well have been a mistake amid intentional airstrikes and high tensions throughout the region.

They were later joined by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who said there was now “a body of information” that an Iranian missile brought down the plane.

“There is now a body of information that the flight was shot down by an Iranian Surface to Air Missile. This may well have been unintentional,” Johnson said in a statement on the air disaster in which four British passengers died.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose country lost at least 63 citizens in the downing, said in a Thursday press conference in Toronto: “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.”

Rescue teams work amid debris after a Ukrainian plane carrying 176 passengers crashed near Imam Khomeini airport in the Iranian capital Tehran early in the morning on January 8, 2020, killing everyone on board. (AFP)

Earlier Thursday, US President Donald Trump suggested he believed Iran was responsible for the shootdown but wouldn’t directly blame the Iranians. He dismissed Iran’s initial claim that it was a mechanical issue.

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

“Some people say it was mechanical,” Trump added. “I personally don’t think that’s even a question.”

Four US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence, wouldn’t say what intelligence they had that pointed to an Iranian missile. 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.

Colleagues of the flight crew members of the Ukrainian 737-800 plane that crashed on the outskirts of Tehran, light candles at a memorial inside Borispil international airport outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran’s main airport, killing all onboard, Iranian state TV and officials in Ukraine said. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Unnamed officials told US media satellite, radar and electronic data indicated Tehran’s air defense units downed the aircraft.

ABC News reported that an unnamed official said it was “highly likely” the plane was brought down by two surface-to-air missiles.

Two additional US officials said the intelligence pointing to likely Iranian responsibility became clearer overnight into Thursday.

It was not immediately clear how the US and its allies would react to the downing of the airliner. At least 63 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians were among the dead.

Despite efforts by Washington and Tehran to step back from the brink of possible war, the region remained on edge after the killing of the Iranian general and Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes. U.S. troops were on high-alert.

The latest assessment comes just a day after US Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they hadn’t had a chance to review the intelligence on the incident. Both spent much of the day at the White House and on Capitol Hill briefing the administration on on the killing of general Qassem Soleimani and the resulting attacks by Iran.

Mourners attend a funeral ceremony for Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his comrades, who were killed in Iraq in a US drone strike, in the city of Kerman, Iran, January 7, 2020 (Erfan Kouchari/Tasnim News Agency via AP)

Ukraine, meanwhile, said it considered a missile strike as one of several possible theories for the crash, despite Iran’s early denials.

The preliminary Iranian investigative report released Thursday suggests that a sudden emergency struck the Boeing 737 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines late Tuesday, when it crashed, just minutes after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran. However it said that the airliner pilots never made a radio call for help and that the aircraft was trying to turn back for the airport when the burning plane went down.

Investigators from Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization offered no immediate explanation for the disaster, however. Iranian officials initially blamed a technical malfunction for the crash, something backed by Ukrainian officials before they said they wouldn’t speculate amid an ongoing investigation.

Before the US assessment, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency quoted Hasan Rezaeifa, the head of the of civil aviation accident investigation commission, claiming that “the topics of rocket, missile or anti-aircraft system is ruled out.”

Rescue teams work amidst debris after a Ukrainian plane carrying 176 passengers crashed near Imam Khomeini airport in the Iranian capital Tehran on January 8, 2020, killing everyone on board. (AFP)

The report also confirmed that both of the “black boxes” that contain data and cockpit communications from the plane had been recovered, though they sustained damage and some parts of their memory was lost.

Hours before the plane crash the US Federal Aviation Administration had issued an emergency flight restriction barring US carriers and pilots from flying over areas of Iraqi, Iranian and some Persian Gulf airspace warning of the “potential for miscalculation or misidentification” for civilian aircraft due to heightened political and military tensions.

Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s Security Council, told Ukrainian media that officials had several working theories regarding the crash, including a missile strike.

Iran did not immediately respond to the Ukrainian comments. However, Gen. Abolfazl Shekarchi, the spokesman of the Iranian armed forces, denied a missile hit the airplane in a comments reported Wednesday by the semiofficial Fars news agency. He dismissed the allegation as “psychological warfare” by foreign-based Iranian opposition groups.

The US accident investigator, the National Transportation Safety Board, is talking to the State Department and the Treasury Department about traveling to Iran to inspect the US-built aircraft and working with Iranian authorities despite US economic sanctions against that country. Federal officials are concerned about sending employees to Iran because of the heightened tensions.

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