Iran downed Ukrainian jet­liner, US, Cana­dian of­fi­cials say

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Lolita C. Bal­dor and Zeke

WASHINGTON >> Ev­i­dence in­di­cates it is “highly likely” that an Ira­nian anti-air­craft mis­sile downed a Ukrainian jet­liner near Tehran late Tues­day, U.S. and Cana­dian of­fi­cials said Thurs­day. They said the strike, which killed all 176 peo­ple on board, could well have been a mis­take amid in­ten­tional airstrikes and high ten­sions through­out the re­gion.

The crash came just a few hours af­ter Iran launched a bal­lis­tic at­tack against Iraqi mil­i­tary bases hous­ing U.S. troops amid a con­fronta­tion with Washington over the U.S. drone strike that killed an Ira­nian Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard gen­eral. Four U.S. of­fi­cials, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss sen­si­tive in­tel­li­gence, said they had no cer­tain knowl­edge of Ira­nian in­tent and the air­liner could have been mis­taken for a threat.

Cana­dian Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau, whose coun­try lost at least 63 ci­ti­zens in the down­ing, said in a Thurs­day press con­fer­ence in Toronto: “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 sur­faceto-air mis­sile,.”

Ear­lier Thurs­day, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump sug­gested he be­lieved Iran was re­spon­si­ble for the shoot­down but wouldn’t di­rectly blame the Ira­ni­ans. He dis­missed Iran’s ini­tial claim that it was a me­chan­i­cal is­sue.

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

“Some peo­ple say it was me­chan­i­cal,” Trump added. “I per­son­ally don’t think that’s even a ques­tion.”

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.

Two ad­di­tional U.S. of­fi­cials said the in­tel­li­gence point­ing to likely Ira­nian re­spon­si­bil­ity be­came clearer overnight into Thurs­day.

It was not im­me­di­ately clear how the U.S. and its al­lies would re­act to the down­ing of the air­liner. At least 63 Cana­di­ans and 11 Ukraini­ans were among the dead.

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.

The lat­est as­sess­ment comes just a day af­ter De­fense Sec­re­tary Mark Esper and Army Gen. Mark Mil­ley, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they hadn’t had a chance to re­view the in­tel­li­gence on the in­ci­dent. Both spent much of the day at the White House and on Capi­tol Hill brief­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion on on the killing of Soleimani and the re­sult­ing at­tacks by Iran.

A pre­lim­i­nary Ira­nian in­ves­tiga­tive re­port re­leased Thurs­day said that the air­liner pi­lots never made a ra­dio call for help and that the air­craft was try­ing to turn back for the air­port when the burn­ing plane went down. Ukraine, mean­while, said it con­sid­ered a mis­sile strike as one of sev­eral pos­si­ble the­o­ries for the crash, de­spite Iran’s early de­nials.

The Ira­nian re­port sug­gests that a sud­den emer­gency struck the Boe­ing 737 op­er­ated by Ukrainian In­ter­na­tional Air­lines late Tues­day, when it crashed, just min­utes af­ter tak­ing off from Imam Khome­ini

In­ter­na­tional Air­port in Tehran.

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, the 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 at Tehran’s Imam Khome­ini Air­port, the main air­port for trav­el­ers in Iran. It gained al­ti­tude head­ing west, reach­ing nearly 8,000 feet, ac­cord­ing to both the re­port and flight-track­ing data.

Then some­thing went wrong, though “no ra­dio mes­sages were re­ceived from the pilot re­gard­ing un­usual sit­u­a­tions,” the re­port said. In emer­gen­cies, pi­lots reach out to air-traf­fic con­trollers to warn them and to clear the run­way for their ar­rival, though their first priority is to keep the air­craft fly­ing.

Eye­wit­nesses, 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 of the “black boxes” that con­tain data and cock­pit com­mu­ni­ca­tions from the plane had been re­cov­ered, though they sus­tained dam­age and some parts of their mem­ory was lost.

Repub­li­can Sen. Mike Lee says he’s lob­by­ing GOP col­leagues to sup­port a war pow­ers res­o­lu­tion be­ing of­fered by Demo­crat Sen. Tim Kaine. He dis­agrees with Repub­li­cans like Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, who think the war pow­ers act is un­con­sti­tu­tional.

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