Iran makes a U-turn on Ukrainian plane crash, admits it unintentionally downed airliner and killed all 176 onboard

  • Iran announced early Saturday that it had accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, blaming human error because of what it called the plane’s sharp, unexpected turn toward a sensitive military base, according to a statement issued by the country’s military

  • The announcement reversed Iran’s claims that mechanical issues caused the crash of the aircraft on Wednesday, which killed all 176 people aboard

  • It had previously denied that Iranian military defenses had downed the aircraft, a Boeing 737-800

Tehran: Iran announced early Saturday that it had accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, blaming human error because of what it called the plane’s sharp, unexpected turn toward a sensitive military base, according to a statement issued by the country’s military.

The announcement reversed Iran’s claims that mechanical issues caused the crash of the aircraft on Wednesday, which killed all 176 people aboard. It had previously denied that Iranian military defenses had downed the aircraft, a Boeing 737-800.

The Iranian military's statement said the plane “took the flying posture and altitude of an enemy target” as it came close to a Revolutionary Guard base. It said that “under these circumstances, because of human error,” the plane “came under fire.”

International pressure had been building on Iran to take responsibility. American and allied intelligence assessments have said that Iranian missiles brought down the plane, most likely by accident, amid the heightened tensions between the United States and Iran.

 Iran makes a U-turn on Ukrainian plane crash, admits it unintentionally downed airliner and killed all 176 onboard

A relative of a passenger grieves at the site of the Ukraine International Airlines crash on the outskirts of Tehran on Wednesday. By Arash Khamooshi © 2020 The New York Times

Suspicions that an Iranian missile had brought down the plane began immediately after Wednesday morning’s crash — just hours after Iran fired missiles at two bases in Iraq housing U.S. forces.

Official Iranian news media had cited technical problems as the cause in the hours after the crash. Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization chief, Ali Abedzadeh, doubled down on that assessment Friday, saying nothing could be determined until the data from the black boxes was analyzed, and he characterized statements made by other nations as politically motivated.

But by late Friday, officials were considering acknowledging that Iranian missiles brought down the jet, according to four Iranians familiar with the deliberations. The government was also weighing whether to blame faulty jet equipment.

An Iranian report released Thursday said that the plane, bound for the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was in flames before it hit the ground but sent no distress signal.

Video verified by The New York Times and published Thursday appeared to show a missile fired from Iranian territory hitting the plane, Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. The video showed a small explosion as the plane flew above Parand, a city near the airport — where it stopped transmitting its signal before it crashed. The plane turned back toward the airport before it crashed, other videos verified by The Times showed.

When Iran began firing missiles early Wednesday in retaliation for the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani by the United States in Baghdad, international airlines rerouted flights away from Iran, and the Federal Aviation Administration barred American carriers from the airspace in the region. After the crash, experts raised questions about why Iranian authorities had not stopped flights in and out of Tehran.

In Iran, a debate over how much blame the government bears threatened to destroy the national solidarity that followed the country’s conflict with the United States. Many Iranians said that their anger over the lack of accountability at the highest levels of government had quickly returned.

On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the United States and its allies had intelligence showing that the passenger jet had been shot down.

“We do believe that it’s likely that the plane was shot down by an Iranian missile,” Pompeo said at a briefing at the White House announcing new sanctions against Iran. “We’re going to let the investigation play out before we make a final determination. It’s important that we get to the bottom of it.”

Pompeo was the first US official to publicly confirm the intelligence assessments.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, citing a preliminary review of the evidence, called for a full investigation “to be convinced beyond all doubt.” The jetliner was carrying 57 Canadians among its 176 passengers and crew.

“We recognize that this may have been done accidentally,” Trudeau said at a news conference in Ottawa. “The evidence suggests very clearly a possible and probable cause for the crash.”

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine made clear on Friday that Western governments had not initially shared the evidence underpinning their assessments that Iran had brought down the Ukrainian jet, though later a spokeswoman said that U.S. officials had handed over more information.

Ukrainian officials also analyzed the plane’s flight pattern Friday and determined it had stayed within the normal corridor for flights out of Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, said at a news conference.

State television in Iran aired footage that it said showed two black boxes recovered from the crash site. Processing their data could take more than a month, and the investigation could take up to two years, Hassan Rezaeifar, head of the Iranian investigation team, said Friday.

Farnaz Fassihi c.2020 The New York Times Company

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Updated Date: Jan 11, 2020 17:21:27 IST