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Iran rejects claims it shot down Ukraine passenger jet

Red Crescent workers at the site of the crash on January 8, 2019.
Red Crescent workers at the site of the crash on January 8, 2019. © Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters

Iran's civil aviation chief denied Friday that an Iranian missile downed a Ukrainian airliner which crashed killing all 176 on board, dismissing Western claims of a catastrophic mistake by the country's air defences.

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Iran's denial came as Tehran faced mounting international pressure to allow a "credible" investigation into the crash, which several Western governments blamed on an accidental missile strike.

"One thing is for certain, this airplane was not hit by a missile," Iran's civil aviation chief Ali Abedzadeh said, after Tehran invited the US, Ukraine, Canada and others to join the investigation.

The cause of the crash is to be announced Saturday after an investigating committee meeting in the presence of foreign and local parties involved, Iran's Fars news agency said, quoting an "informed source".

Ukraine said its experts had gained access to the black box flight recorders as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated it was "likely" an Iran missile downed the plane.

The Boeing 737 crashed on Wednesday shortly after Iran launched missiles at US forces in Iraq in response to the killing of a top Iranian general in a US drone strike in Baghdad.

It is Iran's worst civil aviation disaster since 1988 when the US military said it shot down an Iran Air plane over the Gulf by mistake, killing all 290 people on board.

The majority of the passengers on Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 were dual national Iranian-Canadians but they also included Ukrainians, Afghans, Britons and Swedes.

Vadym Prystaiko, the foreign minister of Ukraine which has sent around 50 experts to Tehran to take part in the Iran-led inquiry, told reporters Friday:  "Our team has now access to the black boxes."

Prystaiko said Ukraine sees "full cooperation" from Iran, adding that Ukrainian experts also had access to plane fragments and the crash site.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that multiple intelligence sources indicated an Iranian surface-to-air missile downed the plane after it took off from Tehran.

"We know this may have been unintentional. Canadians have questions, and they deserve answers," Trudeau told reporters.

'Iran missile likely'

Abedzadeh rejected the claim, saying "any remarks made before the data is extracted (from the plane's black box flight recorders) ... is not an expert opinion".

Trudeau's comments came as video footage emerged that appeared to show the moment the airliner was hit.

The footage, which The New York Times said it had verified, shows a fast-moving object rising at an angle into the sky before a bright flash is seen, which dims and then continues moving forward. Several seconds later an explosion is heard and the sky lit up.

Iran's foreign ministry said a Canadian delegation was on its way to Tehran to "handle the affairs of the Canadian victims", a rarity since the two countries cut diplomatic relations in 2012.

The civil aviation chief said Tehran had invited "Americans, Canadians, the French, Ukrainians and the Swedish" to be present during the investigation.

European Union foreign ministers urged Iran to be transparent.

"The important thing now is that everything is completely investigated. Nothing must be swept under the table," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.

The US National Transportation Safety Board said it had received formal notification of the crash from Iran and would send a representative to join the probe.

Iran's foreign ministry also invited US plane maker Boeing to "participate" in the probe.

Canada's transportation safety board said it had accepted an invitation to join the inquiry.

France is the co-manufacturer of the plane's engines, and has offered its expertise to help decipher the black box data.

Trudeau was backed by several other Western leaders, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Netherlands Premier Mark Rutte and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg.

US President Donald Trump has indicated that Washington officials believed the Kiev-bound Boeing 737 was struck by an Iranian missile. "I have my suspicions... somebody could have made a mistake."

His secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, echoed him on Friday.

"We do believe it's likely that plane was shot down by an Iranian missile," he said. "We are going to let the investigation play out before we make a final determination."

Radio silence

Unidentified officials told US media that satellite, radar and electronic data indicated Tehran's air defence units downed the aircraft.

Iran's aviation authority chief said the missile theory could not be "scientifically correct" because it was not possible for an airliner to be hit and "continue flying for 60 to 70 seconds".

"The debris collected has been in a very limited area. If there was an explosion in the wings it should have been much more scattered," Abedzadeh said.

The airliner went down in the dark just minutes after take-off, with no radio message from the pilot to indicate distress, Iranian aviation authorities said.

The pilot did not call the tower because "he must have been trying to save the airplane before anything else", Abedzadeh said.

German carrier Lufthansa said it was cancelling all flights to and from Tehran until January 20 "due to the unclear security situation for the airspace around Tehran airport".

Sweden said it was stopping Iran Air flights between the two countries because of safety concerns.

Several other airlines also announced they would avoid Iranian and Iraqi airspace.

Investigators are pursuing several possibilities, including engine failure, a missile strike or an act of terror.

As speculation about the cause grew, Hesamodin Ashena, a senior advisor to President Hassan Rouhani, warned Iranians working for Farsi-language media abroad to "not participate in the psychological warfare" against Iran over the plane crash.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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