U.S. blames Iran for jet­liner down­ing, pledges probe

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Nasser Karmi, Joseph Krauss and Zeke Miller

WASH­ING­TON >> The U.S. promised “ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion” Fri­day in re­sponse to its as­sess­ment that an Ira­nian mis­sile was re­spon­si­ble for down­ing a Ukrainian jet­liner that crashed out­side Tehran, as the Ira­nian gov­ern­ment de­nied play­ing a role in the killing of all 176 peo­ple on board.

Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo be­came the high­est-level U.S. of­fi­cial to di­rectly pin the blame on Iran, af­ter Cana­dian, Aus­tralian and Bri­tish lead­ers an­nounced sim­i­lar in­tel­li­gence con­clu­sions Thursday. “We do be­lieve it is likely that that plane was shot down by an Ira­nian mis­sile,” he said.

Pom­peo said an in­ves­ti­ga­tion would con­tinue into the in­ci­dent and that once it was com­plete he was “con­fi­dent that we and the world will take ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion as a re­sponse.” Lead­ers said the plane ap­peared to have been un­in­ten­tion­ally hit by a sur­face-to-air mis­sile.

Ear­lier Fri­day, Iran de­nied West­ern al­le­ga­tions that one of its own mis­siles downed the jet­liner that crashed early Wed­nes­day out­side Tehran, hours af­ter Iran launched more than a dozen bal­lis­tic mis­siles at two U.S. bases in Iraq to avenge the killing of its top gen­eral in an Amer­i­can airstrike last week.

“What is ob­vi­ous for us, and what we can say with

cer­tainty, is that no mis­sile hit the plane,” Ali Abedzadeh, head of Iran’s na­tional avi­a­tion depart­ment, told a press conference.

“If they are re­ally sure, they should come and show their find­ings to the world” in ac­cor­dance with in­ter­na­tional stan­dards, he added.

Has­san Reza­ei­far, the head of the Ira­nian in­ves­ti­ga­tion team, said re­cov­er­ing data from the black box flight recorders could take more than a month and that the en­tire in­ves­ti­ga­tion could stretch into next year. He also said Iran may re­quest help from in­ter­na­tional ex­perts if it is not able to ex­tract the flight record­ings.

The bal­lis­tic mis­sile at­tack on the bases in Iraq caused no ca­su­al­ties, rais­ing hopes that the stand­off over the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani would end rel­a­tively peace­fully, though Iran has sent mixed sig­nals over whether its re­tal­i­a­tion is com­plete.

If the U.S. or Canada were to present in­con­tro­vert­ible ev­i­dence that the plane was shot down by Iran, even if un­in­ten­tion­ally, it could have a dra­matic im­pact on pub­lic opin­ion in Iran.

The Ira­nian pub­lic had ral­lied around the lead­er­ship af­ter the killing of Soleimani last Fri­day, with hun­dreds of thou­sands join­ing the gen­eral’s fu­neral pro­ces­sions in sev­eral cities, in an un­prece­dented dis­play of grief and unity.

But sen­ti­ments in Iran are still raw over the gov­ern­ment’s crack­down on large-scale protests late last year sparked by an eco­nomic cri­sis ex­ac­er­bated by U.S. sanc­tions. Sev­eral hun­dred pro­test­ers were re­ported to have been killed in the clam­p­down.

Those fis­sures could quickly break open again if Ira­nian author­i­ties are seen to be re­spon­si­ble for the deaths of 176 peo­ple, mainly Ira­ni­ans or dual Ira­ni­anCana­dian cit­i­zens. Iran still points to the ac­ci­den­tal down­ing of an Ira­nian pas­sen­ger jet by U.S. forces in 1988 — which killed all 290 peo­ple aboard — as proof of Amer­i­can hos­til­ity.

U.S., Cana­dian and Bri­tish of­fi­cials said Thursday it is “highly likely” that Iran shot down the Boe­ing 737, which crashed near Tehran early Wed­nes­day. U.S. of­fi­cials said the jet­liner might have been mis­tak­enly iden­ti­fied as a threat.

Cana­dian Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau, whose coun­try lost at least 63 cit­i­zens in the down­ing, said

“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,” he said.

The U.S. of­fi­cials did not say what in­tel­li­gence they had that pointed to an Ira­nian mis­sile, be­lieved to be fired by Rus­sian Tor sys­tem, known to NATO as the SA15. 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.

West­ern coun­tries may hes­i­tate to share in­for­ma­tion on such a strike be­cause it comes from highly clas­si­fied sources.

Videos ver­i­fied by The As­so­ci­ated Press ap­pear to show the fi­nal sec­onds of the the ill-fated air­liner, which had just taken off from Iran early Wed­nes­day.

In one video, a fast­mov­ing light can be seen through the trees as some­one films from the ground. The light ap­pears to be the burn­ing plane, which plum­mets to the earth as a huge fire­ball il­lu­mi­nates the land­scape.

Some­one off-cam­era says in Farsi: “The plane has caught fire . ... In the name of God, the com­pas­sion­ate, the mer­ci­ful. God, please help us. Call the fire depart­ment!”

Ukraine’s Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Ze­len­skiy said “the mis­sile the­ory is not ruled out, but it has not been con­firmed yet.”

In a Face­book post, he re­it­er­ated his call “on all in­ter­na­tional part­ners” — the U.S., Bri­tain and Canada in par­tic­u­lar — to share data and ev­i­dence rel­e­vant to the crash. He also an­nounced plans to dis­cuss the in­ves­ti­ga­tion with U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo later on Fri­day.

Pom­peo also called Cana­dian For­eign Min­is­ter François-Philippe Cham­pagne to of­fer his con­do­lences for the Cana­di­ans who per­ished in the crash and of­fered “U.S. sup­port for full co­op­er­a­tion with any in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” the State Depart­ment said.

Ukraine’s For­eign Min­is­ter Vadym Prys­taiko tweeted that he and the pres­i­dent met with U.S. Em­bassy of­fi­cials Fri­day and ob­tained “im­por­tant data” about the crash. The min­is­ter didn’t spec­ify what kind of data it was, but said it would be “pro­cessed by our spe­cial­ists.”

In an in­ter­view with Fox News’ Laura In­gra­ham that aired late Thursday, Pom­peo said com­mer­cial air­lin­ers need to know if it is safe to fly into and out of Tehran.

“If the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity needs to shut down that air­port, so be it,” he said. “We need to get to the bottom of this very, very quickly.”

Ger­many’s Lufthansa air­line said it and sub­sidiaries are can­cel­ing flights to and from Tehran for the next 10 days as a pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sure, cit­ing the “un­clear se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion for the airspace around Tehran air­port.” Other air­lines have been mak­ing changes to avoid Ira­nian airspace.

Bri­tain’s For­eign Of­fice has ad­vised against all travel to Iran, and against all air travel to, from or within the coun­try.

Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency quoted For­eign Ministry spokesman Ab­bas Mousavi as say­ing Iran “has in­vited both Ukraine and the Boe­ing com­pany to par­tic­i­pate in the in­ves­ti­ga­tions.” He later said a 10-mem­ber Cana­dian del­e­ga­tion was head­ing to Iran to as­sist vic­tims’ fam­i­lies.

Iran had ini­tially said it would not al­low Boe­ing to take part in the probe, go­ing against pre­vail­ing in­ter­na­tional norms on crash in­ves­ti­ga­tions. It later in­vited the U.S. ac­ci­dent-in­ves­ti­gat­ing agency to take part in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board said late Thursday that it would “eval­u­ate its level of par­tic­i­pa­tion,” but its role could be limited by U.S. sanc­tions on Iran. U.S. of­fi­cials have also ex­pressed con­cern about send­ing em­ploy­ees to Iran be­cause of the height­ened ten­sions.

U.S. Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Steven Mnuchin said Fri­day that his depart­ment would grant li­censes to al­low global in­ves­ti­ga­tors to travel to Iran and par­tic­i­pate in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Un­der rules set by a United Na­tions avi­a­tion or­ga­ni­za­tion, the NTSB is en­ti­tled to par­tic­i­pate be­cause the crash in­volved a Boe­ing 737-800 jet that was de­signed and built in the U.S.

The French air ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion agency, known by the French acro­nym BEA, is also tak­ing part in the probe. The plane’s en­gine was de­signed by CFM In­ter­na­tional, a joint com­pany be­tween French group Safran and U.S. group GE Avi­a­tion.

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

The Ira­nian re­port sug­gested that a sud­den emer­gency struck the Boe­ing 737, op­er­ated by Ukrainian In­ter­na­tional Air­lines, just min­utes af­ter tak­ing off from Imam Khome­ini In­ter­na­tional Air­port early Wed­nes­day.

Those find­ings are not in­con­sis­tent with the ef­fect of a sur­face-to-air mis­sile.

ADRIAN WYLD — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Can­dles sit in front of pic­tures of vic­tims at a can­dle light vigil to re­mem­ber those killed in the Ukraine In­ter­na­tional Air­lines plane crash, Thursday in Ottawa, On­tario. The civil­ian Ukrainian jet­liner crashed near Tehran late Tues­day, killing all 176 peo­ple on board.

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