The Ukrainian passenger jet that crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran on Wednesday was accidentally shot down by an Iranian anti-aircraft missile, western security officials believe.
Intelligence sources told the Guardian their assessments suggest two surface-to-air missiles had targeted the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 that went down in Iran on Wednesday morning, killing all 176 people onboard.
The Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau said his government “will not rest” until it got justice.
“We have intelligence, including from our allies and own intelligence that the plane was shot down by Iranian surface-to-air missiles,” Trudeau said. “Canadians want answers. That means transparency, accountability and justice.”
Western agencies are understood to have picked up signals of the missile launches followed by the traces of an explosion. A British source said: “The assessment is that it looks like it is a tragic accident.”
In a statement on Thursday night, 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. We are working closely with Canada and our international partners and there now needs to be a full, transparent investigation.”
Of the 176 people onboard, 78 were Iranian, 63 were Canadian and 11 were Ukrainian (including nine crew members), along with 10 Swedes, seven Afghans, four Britons and three German nationals. There was some confusion over the nationality of those killed with many holding dual citizenship.
The passenger aircraft crashed in farmland on the outskirts of Tehran a few hours after Iran had launched more than a dozen missiles at US forces stationed in Iraq, during a period when Revolution Guards commanders say they were expecting an imminent American response and were on high alert.
The revelation that the plane might have been shot down will prompt a reassessment of the consequences of Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani last week, an escalation of hostilities that brought the region to the brink of all-out conflict.
Iranian officials on Thursday rejected the western intelligence assessments. “Scientifically, it is impossible that a missile hit the Ukrainian plane, and such rumours are illogical,” Ali Abedzadeh, the head of Iran’s of Civil Aviation Organisation told a state-run media outlet.
Separately, US media outlets quoted officials saying their satellites had identified the signature of an Iranian anti-aircraft battery being activated shortly before the aircraft went down a few minutes after taking off at 6.13am on Wednesday morning. The US officials said they had identified infrared signals from two suspected missiles, followed shortly afterwards by an infrared blip from the burning aircraft.
Trump told reporters on Thursday he had “suspicions” the plane might have been mistakenly shot down. “Someone could have made a mistake on the other side,” he said. “Some people say it was mechanical, I personally don’t think that’s even a question. I have a feeling that … something very terrible happened.” The Pentagon declined to comment.
Public suspicions that the Boeing 737-800 may have accidentally been shot down had grown throughout Thursday based on images circulating on social media showing what appeared to be missile debris that was purportedly photographed near the crash site.
The London-based firm IHS Markit cited the images in a memo arguing the aircraft was “likely to have been shot down mistakenly by an IRGC-operated SA-15 missile”. It said the debris appeared to be that of a Russian-made Tor-M1 missile known to be possessed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. It could not confirm the authenticity of the images but said it assessed them to be credible.
Iranian investigators had said earlier on Thursday their preliminary conclusion was that the plane had suffered a catastrophic technical problem, caught on fire and crashed as it tried to return to Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International airport.
They confirmed they had recovered the aircraft’s two black boxes, recording instruments designed to survive a high-impact crash, but said the devices appeared to have suffered damage and could have been missing some memory.
Hassan Rezaeifar, the head of the committee that oversees aviation accidents in Iran, told the state-run Islamic Republic news agency that a special meeting had been called to consider the possibility the plane was shot down, but dismissed it.
“As the pilot of the Ukrainian plane was trying to get back to the airport, the scenario of a missile attack … is off the table,” he said. “This has been discussed in a special session and went off the table.”
He said investigators had rejected the veracity of the images purporting to show missile debris at the site. “No parts of a missile were found at the scene of the crash,” he said.
Iranian authorities had said the crash was likely to be the result of technical issues almost immediately after announcing the plane had gone down shortly after 7am local time on Wednesday morning (3.30am GMT).
The Ukrainian government had initially endorsed that assessment but changed its position hours later, no longer ruling out the possibility the aircraft had met with foul play and urging a full and transparent investigation.
By Thursday morning, Ukraine’s top national security official was openly discussing in a Facebook post the possibility the aircraft may have been shot down.
“Our commission is currently agreeing with the Iranian authorities to travel to the place of the crash, and plans to search for debris of a [Russian-made] surface-to-air Tor missile, according to information which was published on the internet,” Oleksiy Danilov said.
A Ukrainian investigative team was at the crash site on Thursday. And the Iranian government spokesman, Ali Rabiei said that any country which lost citizens on the flight would be welcome to send representatives. The head of the official Iranian Investigative Committee, Hassan Rezaeifar, said that the US had also been invited, as the home nation of the plane’s manufacturer, Boeing, according to the country’s semi-official Fars news agency.
Some members of the Ukrainian investigative team had been involved in the inquiry into the 2014 shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine by Russian-armed rebels, Danilov added. “We will use all our best practices from investigating the attack on MH17 to find out the truth in the case of the Ukrainian plane in Tehran,” he said.
Iran’s aviation authority said on Wednesday it would not hand over flight recorders either to the aircraft’s American manufacturer or to US aviation authorities, but that it would give Ukrainian investigators access to the investigation.
But Ali Abedzadeh appeared to backtrack on Thursday, saying claims in the Iranian media that the black boxes would not be sent overseas were “a mistake taken by the reporter”.