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Iran continues to deny Western suggestions that missile downed Ukrainian jet

Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-900. (Eric Salard/Flickr)

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

Iran has strongly denied Western suggestions that a missile brought down a Ukrainian airliner near Tehran earlier this week, killing all 176 people on board, as investigators from the two countries continue to pour over the wreckage.

“One thing is for certain, this airplane was not hit by a missile,” Iran’s civil aviation chief Ali Abedzadeh told a news conference on January 10 after leaders from the United States, Britain, and Canada all said intelligence data indicates a catastrophic error by Iranian air defense batteries brought down the plane.

Abedzadeh’s comments came hours after Tehran gave Ukrainian investigators access to the fragments of the airliner and invited plane maker Boeing and the U.S. accident-investigation agency to help in the probe of the crash.

A statement from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office said DNA was being collected from relatives of Ukrainians who died in the crash of the Boeing 737-800 jet in order to identify the bodies.

However, the statement said it was “too early on in the investigation to reveal specific details.”

The Ukrainian-flagged Boeing 737-800 was en route to Kyiv when it crashed on January 8 after taking off from the Iranian capital.

The victims were 63 Canadians, 82 Iranians, 10 Swedes, four Afghans, three Germans, and three Britons. There were also 11 Ukrainians on board, including nine crew.

Earlier on January 10, in a reversal from its earlier stance, Iran said it had invited the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and plane maker Boeing to participate in the crash investigation.

The decision came after U.S., Canadian, and British officials said it was “highly likely” that the Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) flight had been shot down, probably in error, by an Iranian missile.

Iranian officials have called on Western nations to share any intelligence suggesting it did so.

Abedzadeh said that, along with NTSB and Boeing representatives, Tehran will allow experts from Ukraine, France, and Canada to participate in the crash investigation.

Under rules established by the UN aviation organization, the NTSB is entitled to participate in the investigation because the crash involved a Boeing jet that was designed and built in the United States.

Amid tensions heightened by the killing of top Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. air strike in Baghdad last week, Iran earlier had said it would not give the plane’s so-called black boxes, which contain flight data and cockpit voice recorders, to either U.S. authorities, nor to Boeing representatives.

Any involvement by the NTSB could be limited because of restrictions related to financial sanctions placed on Tehran by the American government.

The board, an independent U.S. government agency charged with probing civil aviation accidents, said it was evaluating its “level of participation in the investigation.”

It confirmed it had received notification of the crash from Iran, the formal process that gives the U.S. agency the right to seek participation in the investigation.

The NTSB said it has named an accredited representative to the case, but did not say when or if the person would be allowed to visit the site.

Earlier, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a news conference in Ottawa that evidence suggested an Iranian missile downed the Ukrainian passenger plane that was flying from Tehran to Kyiv.

“We have intelligence from multiple sources, including our allies and our own intelligence. The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile,” Trudeau said.

“This may well have been unintentional,” he told a press conference, calling for a “complete and credible investigation” into the cause of the crash.

The plane crash occurred hours after Iran fired missiles at bases housing U.S. forces in Iraq.

Trudeau’s comments came as video, which The New York Times says it has verified, emerged that may show the moment the airliner was hit.

The video shows a fast-moving object heading into the sky before a bright flash is seen. Several seconds later, an explosion is heard.

Echoing Trudeau’s words, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “There is now a body of information that the flight was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air Missile.”

“This may well have been unintentional,” Johnson added.

U.S. President Donald Trump said he had “suspicions” about the crash, saying the plane “was flying in a pretty rough neighborhood and somebody could have made a mistake.”

Unidentified U.S. officials said they were confident that Iranian air-defense systems downed the Boeing 737-800, based on satellite, radar, and electronic data.

Newsweek magazine quoted a Pentagon and a senior U.S. intelligence official, as well as an Iraqi intelligence official, as saying they believed the Ukrainian plane was hit by a Russian-made Tor missile.

Iran’s Transport Ministry has also denied the suggestions of a missile being involved in the accident, saying “this cannot be correct at all.”

“Several internal and international flights were flying at the same time in Iranian airspace at the same altitude of 8,000 feet [2,440 meters],” the ministry said.