US points to Iran strik­ing plane

Bri­tain, Canada hint mis­sile hit­ting jet­liner could have been mis­taken as pos­si­ble threat

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Lolita C. Bal­dor and Zeke Miller

WASHINGTON — It is “highly likely” that Iran shot down the civil­ian Ukrainian jet­liner that crashed near Tehran early Wed­nes­day, killing all 176 peo­ple on board, U.S., Cana­dian and Bri­tish of­fi­cials de­clared Thurs­day. They said the mis­sile strike could well have been a mis­take amid rocket launches and high ten­sion through­out the re­gion.

The crash came a few hours af­ter Iran launched a bal­lis­tic at­tack against Iraqi mil­i­tary bases hous­ing U.S. troops in its vi­o­lent con­fronta­tion with Washington over the U.S. drone strike that killed an Ira­nian Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard gen­eral. The air­liner could have been mis­taken for a threat, said four U.S. of­fi­cials, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss sen­si­tive in­tel­li­gence.

Cana­dian Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau, whose coun­try lost at least 63 ci­ti­zens in the down­ing, said in Toronto: “We have in­tel­li­gence from mul­ti­ple sources in­clud­ing our al­lies and our own in­tel­li­gence. The evi

dence in­di­cates that the plane was shot down by an Ira­nian sur­faceto-air mis­sile.”

Like­wise, U.K. 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.”

The as­sess­ment that 176 peo­ple were killed as col­lat­eral dam­age in the Ira­nian-U.S. con­flict cast a new pall over what had at first ap­peared to be a rel­a­tively calm af­ter­math fol­low­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion that killed Ira­nian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

It was not clear how the U.S. and its al­lies would re­act.

De­spite ef­forts by Washington and Tehran to step back from the brink of pos­si­ble war, the re­gion re­mained on edge af­ter the killing of the Ira­nian gen­eral and Iran’s re­tal­ia­tory mis­sile strikes. U.S. troops were on high-alert.

At the White House, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump sug­gested that he be­lieved Iran was re­spon­si­ble for the down­ing and dis­missed Iran’s ini­tial claim that it was a me­chan­i­cal is­sue with the plane.

“Some­body could have made a mis­take on the other side,” Trump said, not­ing the plane was fly­ing in a “pretty rough neigh­bor­hood.”

Late Thurs­day, the U.S. House ap­proved a mea­sure that aims to bar any fur­ther mil­i­tary ac­tion against Iran with­out con­gres­sional ap­proval. How­ever, the res­o­lu­tion ap­proved by the Demo­cratic-ma­jor­ity House is non­bind­ing and, at any rate, no sim­i­lar mea­sure could pass the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Se­nate.

As for the air­liner crash, the U.S. of­fi­cials wouldn’t say what in­tel­li­gence they had that pointed to an Ira­nian mis­sile.

But they ac­knowl­edged the ex­is­tence of satel­lites and other sen­sors in the re­gion, as well as the like­li­hood of com­mu­ni­ca­tion in­ter­cep­tions and other sim­i­lar in­tel­li­gence.

The New York Times posted a video Thurs­day that it said it had ver­i­fied show­ing the mo­ment the ap­par­ent mis­sile struck the plane over Iran. The video shows a fast­mov­ing ob­ject ris­ing be­fore a fiery ex­plo­sion. An ob­ject, ap­par­ently on fire, then con­tin­ues in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion.

A pre­lim­i­nary Ira­nian in­ves­tiga­tive re­port re­leased Thurs­day said the plane’s pi­lots never made a ra­dio call for help and that the air­craft was try­ing to turn back for the air­port when the burn­ing air­liner went down.

The Ira­nian re­port sug­gested that a sud­den emer­gency struck the Boe­ing 737 op­er­ated by Ukrainian In­ter­na­tional Air­lines early Wed­nes­day, when it crashed, just min­utes af­ter tak­ing off from Tehran’s Imam Khome­ini In­ter­na­tional Air­port, the main air­port for trav­el­ers in Iran.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors from Iran’s Civil Avi­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion of­fered no im­me­di­ate ex­pla­na­tion for the dis­as­ter, how­ever.

Ira­nian of­fi­cials ini­tially blamed a tech­ni­cal mal­func­tion for the crash, some­thing backed by Ukrainian of­fi­cials be­fore they said they wouldn’t spec­u­late amid an on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Be­fore the U.S. as­sess­ment, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency quoted Hasan Reza­eifa, head of the of civil avi­a­tion ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion com­mis­sion, claim­ing that “the top­ics of rocket, mis­sile or anti-air­craft sys­tem is ruled out.”

The Ukrainian In­ter­na­tional Air­lines took off at 6:12 a.m.

Wed­nes­day, Tehran time, af­ter nearly an hour’s de­lay. The plane gained al­ti­tude head­ing west, reach­ing nearly 8,000 feet, ac­cord­ing to both the re­port and flight-track­ing data.

Wit­nesses, in­clud­ing the crew of an­other flight pass­ing above, de­scribed see­ing the plane en­gulfed in flames be­fore crash­ing at 6:18 a.m., the re­port said. The crash caused a mas­sive ex­plo­sion when the plane hit the ground, likely be­cause the air­craft had been fully loaded with fuel for the flight to Kyiv, Ukraine.

The re­port also con­firmed that both “black boxes” had been re­cov­ered, though they sus­tained dam­age.

Olek­siy Danilov, sec­re­tary of Ukraine’s Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, told Ukrainian me­dia that of­fi­cials had sev­eral work­ing the­o­ries re­gard­ing the crash, in­clud­ing a mis­sile strike.

AK­BAR TAVAKOLI/IRNA/GETTY -AFP

Res­cue teams work at the scene of a Ukrainian air­liner that crashed shortly af­ter take­off near Imam Khome­ini air­port on Wed­nes­day.

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