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Hard-hit Canada seeks key role in Iran crash probe

Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-900ER (Flyuia412/Wikimedia Commons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Canada says it intends to play a key role in investigating the crash of an Ukrainian airliner that killed dozens of its citizens despite not having direct diplomatic relations with Tehran.

The cause of the crash of the Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) Boeing 737-800NG, which killed all 176 aboard after taking off from Iran’s capital on January 8, remains unknown.

Ukraine’s embassy in Tehran initially blamed engine failure but later removed the statement.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a news conference in Ottawa that 138 of the 176 people on board the flight from Tehran to Kyiv had onward connections to Canada. Many were members of Canada’s large Iranian community, mainly from the Edmonton area.

Ukrainian officials said 63 Canadians, 82 Iranians, 10 Swedes, four Afghans, three Germans, and three Britons were on the plane, along with 11 Ukrainians, including nine crew.

Trudeau said that “Canada is one of a handful of countries with a high degree of expertise when it comes to these sorts of accidents and, therefore, we have much to contribute.”

“I am confident that in our engagement both through our allies and directly, we are going to make sure that we are a substantive contributor to this investigation,” he told reporters.

The Canadian leader said Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne would call his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to stress the need for a full investigation into the tragedy.

Canada broke diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012, and Italy normally acts as a proxy for communication between Ottawa and Tehran.

Trudeau would not comment on possible causes for the accident.

“Obviously we are very, very early days on the investigation. It’s dangerous to speculate on possible causes,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he had instructed the prosecutor general to open criminal proceedings over the crash.

He said on Facebook that Ukraine will send a team of experts to Iran to investigate the circumstances of the crash.

“Our priority is to establish the truth and those responsible for this terrible catastrophe,” Zelenskiy wrote.

Iran and Ukraine agreed “to coordinate further actions of our investigation groups closely to determine the cause of the terrible plane crash,” according to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystayko.

Zelenskiy’s office later issued a decree declaring January 9 a “day of national mourning” to honor victims of the crash.

A statement also said Zelenskiy would speak by phone with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rohani, to set up cooperation to “establish the truth” about the tragedy.

Iranian TV said the crash was due to unspecified technical problems, and Iranian media quoted a local aviation official as saying the pilot did not declare an emergency.

State media reported that the plane caught fire after crashing, but a video aired by the state broadcaster appeared to show the plane already on fire as it fell from the night sky.

The crash came just hours after Iran launched a ballistic-missile attack targeting two bases in Iraq housing U.S. forces in retaliation for the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qasem Soleimani.

The timing of the plane crash led some aviation experts to wonder whether it was brought down by a missile, but Iranian officials rejected any such suggestion.

“The rumors about the plane are completely false and no military or political expert has confirmed it,” General Abolfazl Shekarchi, spokesman for the Iranian armed forces, was quoted by the semiofficial Fars news agency as saying.

He called the speculation “psychological warfare” by opponents of the government.