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Iran admits shooting down Ukrainian plane killing 176

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Iran said on Saturday it had mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian plane killing all 176 aboard and voiced deep regret.

People pay their respect during a candlelight vigil to honor victims of the Ukrainian passenger plane crash at Mel Lastman Square in Toronto, Canada, Jan. 9, 2020. Sixty-three Canadians were among the 176 people killed in a Ukrainian plane crash just minutes after the plane took off from the Iranian capital's international airport, according to Canada's television network CTV Wednesday. Photo: Zou Zheng/Xinhua/IANS

DUBAI – Iran said on Saturday it had
mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian plane killing all 176 aboard
and voiced deep regret, after initially denying it brought down
the aircraft in the tense aftermath of Iranian missile strikes
on U.S. targets in Iraq.

Wednesday’s crash heightened pressure on Iran after months
of friction with the United States and tit-for-tat attacks. A
U.S. drone strike had killed an Iranian general in Iraq on Jan.
3, prompting Tehran to fire at U.S. targets on Wednesday.

Canada, which had 57 citizens on board, and the United
States both said they believed an Iranian missile brought down
the aircraft although they said it was probably an accident.
Canada’s foreign minister had told Iran “the world is watching.”

Responding to Iran’s U-turn, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr
Zelenskiy said he wanted an official apology and full
cooperation, demanding those responsible to be held to account.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous
mistake,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wrote on Twitter,
promising those behind the incident would be prosecuted. “My
thoughts and prayers go to all the mourning families.”

Experts said mounting international scrutiny would have made
it all but impossible to hide signs of a missile strike in an
investigation and Iran may have felt a swift policy reversal was
better than battling rising criticism abroad, as well as facing
growing anger and grief over the crash at home.

Many victims were Iranians with dual nationality.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on
Twitter that “human error at time of crisis caused by U.S.
adventurism led to disaster,” citing an initial armed forces
investigation into the crash of the Boeing 737-800.

An Iranian military statement, the first to indicate Iran’s
shift in position, said the plane had flown close to a sensitive
military site belonging to the elite Revolutionary Guards.

It said that, at the time, planes had been spotted on radar
near strategic sites which led to “further alertness” in air
defence units, adding that responsible parties would be referred
to a judicial department in the military.

TELL-TALE SIGNS

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko had said on
Friday that the plane was following a normal flight corridor.

Experts said a probe would almost certainly have shown up
tell-tale holes and other signs on the remains of the fuselage
that a missile was to blame for the incident.

“There’s nothing you can do to cover it up or hide it,” said
Anthony Brickhouse, an air safety expert at Embry-Riddle
Aeronautical University and former U.S. National Transportation
Safety Board investigator. “Evidence is evidence.”

Former U.S. Federal Aviation Administration accident
investigator, Mike Daniel, told Reuters: “When the facts and
evidence started coming out, I think it was inevitable that the
government of Iran (would) accept culpability.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for
comment.

Mobile phone footage posted and circulated by ordinary
Iranians on Twitter after the crash had indicated that it came
down in a ball of flames and exploded as it struck the ground.

Iran had said on Thursday it would download the information
from voice and flight data recorders, known as black boxes, to
determine what had happened, although it had said the process
could take one to two months.

Tehran had said it could ask Russia, Canada, France or
Ukraine for help, saying an investigation could take one or two
years.

PUBLIC GRIEF

In its initial denials, Iran had said accusations that a
missile was to blame were “psychological warfare”.

Grief-stricken Iranians and others posted images related to
the crash. Many complained Iran’s authorities had spent too much
time trying to fend off criticism over the disaster instead of
offering condolences and sympathising with victims.

One image circulating on social media showed a child’s red
shoe in the dirt. Another was a selfie of a mother and daughter
in their seats, sent to a loved one just before takeoff.

“Why were any civilian airlines flying out of Tehran airport
in those conditions?” a user named Shiva Balaghi wrote on
Twitter.

Ukraine had been looking at various possible causes of the
crash, including an attack by a Russian-made missile, a
collision, an engine explosion or terrorism.

A U.S. official had said data showed the plane airborne for
two minutes after departing Tehran when heat signatures of two
surface-to-air missiles were detected. There was an explosion in
the vicinity and heat data showed the plane on fire as it fell.
U.S. military satellites detect infrared emissions from heat.

U.S. President Donald Trump had said “somebody could have
made a mistake.”

The disaster had echoes of an incident in 1988, when the
U.S. warship USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner,
killing 290 people. Washington said it was a tragic accident.
Tehran said it was intentional.

REUTERS