US officials believe that Iran shot down a Ukraine International Airlines passenger plane on Wednesday, according to CBS News, the Associated Press and multiple other news outlets citing anonymous government sources.
The Kyiv-bound plane crashed shortly after taking off from Tehran’s airport, killing all 176 people on board. The disaster took place early Wednesday morning, hours after Iran launched a series of missiles at Iraqi bases housing US troops as a retaliation for the US killing of top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.
Iran’s alleged downing of the plane was likely accidental, officials told news outlets.
Iran and Ukraine launched a joint investigation of the crash following the disaster, but Iran has refused to provide the black boxes from the plane to both US investigators and the plane manufacturer Boeing.
Ukraine’s investigators announced that they would be considering all causes of the attack, including looking into unverified social media reports of fragments in the area from a Russian-made air defence missile.
The passengers were from a variety of different countries and included 63 Canadians, many of them university students and professors returning after winter break. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asserted that his government would play a significant role in investigating the disaster, telling reporters on Wednesday that while he had not ruled out any causes of the crash it was also dangerous to speculate.
President Donald Trump distanced the US from the event on Thursday and suggested it was possible Iran could have mistakenly downed the plane. “Somebody could have made a mistake on the other side … not our system. It has nothing to do with us,” Trump said. “It was flying in a pretty rough neighbourhood. They could’ve made a mistake.”
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky had calls with the leaders of several countries affected by the disaster, and he asked for assistance from international partners in the investigation of the crash.
The reports that the plane was potentially hit with a projectile are a shocking turnaround after US intelligence officials initially said that there was no immediate evidence that the flight was shot down. Iranian officials had harshly rejected speculation that the plane may have been shot in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
“The rumours about the plane are completely false and no military or political expert has confirmed it,” General Abolfazl Shekarchi, spokesman for Iran’s armed forces, told the country’s Fars News Agency.
The plane allegedly climbed to 8,000 feet and then disappeared from radar systems, according to Iranian civil aviation officials. The plane reportedly never made a radio call for help and was attempting to turn back toward Tehran airport at the time it went down, an initial Iranian report stated.
Some of Ukraine’s investigators also worked on the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014. In that incident, investigators found that Russian-backed separatists fired a Russian-made BUK anti-aircraft missile that brought down the plane and killed all 298 passengers on board. The attack led to widespread sanctions against Russia and a yearslong investigation into its causes.