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EU ministers demand Iran crash transparency at crisis talks

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Brussels (AFP)

EU foreign ministers on Friday urged Iran not to conceal anything about the fatal crash of an airliner outside Tehran, as they met for crisis talks on tensions in the Middle East.

Europe has been scrambling to contain two Iranian crises this week -- the fallout from the US killing a top Iranian general in Baghdad and Tehran's latest step back from the crumbling 2015 nuclear deal.

But reports from several Western capitals indicating that the crash of a Ukrainian International Airlines Boeing 737 -- which killed 176 people -- appeared to have been caused by an Iranian air defence missile prompted calls for clarity from Tehran.

"This is more than tragic... the important thing now is that everything is completely investigated," said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas as he arrived for the talks.

"Nothing must be swept under the table, because if that were the case, it would be the breeding ground for new mistrust."

His Dutch counterpart Stef Blok echoed his call, saying it was "very likely" an Iranian missile brought the plane down.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg added his voice to the calls for transparency and said he had "no reason to not believe" alliance members Britain and Canada when they blamed a missile for the crash.

Friday's highly unusual emergency meeting was called in response to soaring tensions following the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in an American drone strike.

Also Friday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaik told a Kiev briefing that a team of his country's experts had been given access to the plane's black box flight recorders and were receiving "full cooperation" from the Iranian authorities.

"Our team has now got access to the black boxes," Prystaiko said, adding they had also been given access to the plane's fragments and the crash site.

Fears of all-out war have subsided since US President Donald Trump made a statement on Wednesday saying Tehran appeared to be "standing down" after firing missiles -- without causing casualties -- at US troops based in Iraq.

- Iran bomb warning -

But the Iran nuclear deal, which gave Tehran sanctions relief in return for curbing its atomic programme, remains in mortal danger, gravely undermined by Trump's unilateral withdrawal in 2018 and Iran's subsequent winding down of its compliance.

Several ministers restated the EU's continuing determination to preserve the deal, which they say is vital for non-proliferation and regional security -- spurning Trump's call this week for Europe to quit.

But Lithuania's Linas Linkevicius said that without some substantial change, "it will be difficult to believe that this agreement could be alive".

France and Germany have been warning that unless Iran returns to full compliance with the terms of the deal, they may trigger its dispute resolution mechanism, a process that could ultimately end up with UN sanctions being reimposed on Tehran.

No decision is expected on this at Friday's meeting -- not least because Europeans want to wait for UN inspectors to report on what Iran is doing on the ground following its latest announcement.

But French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned that without action, Iran could soon be in a position to develop the bomb.

"If they continue to unravel the Vienna accord then yes in quite a short period, between one and two years, they could have a nuclear weapon, which is unimagineable," he told France's RTL radio on Friday morning.

The three European parties to the pact -- Britain, France and Germany -- have all stressed their commitment to saving it, in defiance of Trump.

European powers fear the ongoing chaos in Libya could lead to a fresh wave of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean, or allow the Islamic State group to gain a foothold to launch attacks.

An EU diplomat said the ministers gave unanimous backing to a planned international conference in Berlin, with Germany delegated to represent the bloc as a whole.

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