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Tehran crash: Plane was shot down by an Iranian anti-aircraft missile, western officials believe

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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.

Western intelligence sources told the Guardian that their assessment suggested two surface-to-air missiles had targeted the plane.Western intelligence 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.”

Separately, officials told US media they had identified the signature from an Iranian anti-aircraft missile battery being activated shortly before the aircraft crashed into countryside south-west of the Iranian capital, killing all on 176 on board. The officials also said they had identified the infrared signature from two suspected missile launches followed shortly afterwards by the infrared blip from the burning and fatally disabled aircraft.

Donald 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.

The UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, had earlier called for a full investigation following a telephone conversation with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Downing Street said.

In the phone call, Johnson offered his condolences, offered UK support and was updated on the crash, a No 10 spokesman said. “The prime minister said that there needed to be a full, credible and transparent investigation into what happened.”

Asked whether this meant the UK was concerned about the possible cause of the crash, he said: “I’m not going to speculate on this, but the reports we have seen are very concerning, and we’re urgently looking into them.”

Public suspicions that the aircraft 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.

Images circulating online of what an Iranian activist said was a missile head photographed near the crash site.
Images circulating online of what an Iranian activist said was a missile head photographed near the crash site.
The London-based firm IHS Markit said in a memo that it assessed that the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 was “likely to have been shot down mistakenly by an IRGC-operated SA-15 missile”. It cited the images circulating on social media that purported to show debris from a Russian-made Tor-M1 missile known to be possessed by the Revolutionary Guards scattered near the crash site. It could not confirm the authenticity of the images but said it assessed them to be credible.

The head of Iran’s of Civil Aviation Organisation labelled the western intelligence assessments “illogical rumours”, the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency reported. “Scientifically, it is impossible that a missile hit the Ukrainian plane, and such rumours are illogical,” Ali Abedzadeh was quoted as saying.

Hassan Rezaeifar, the head of the committee that oversees aviation accidents in Iran, told the state-run Islamic Republic news agency that a special session had been called to consider the possibility the plane was shot down, but dismissed it based on apparent evidence the aircraft had tried to turn back to the airport.

“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.

Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s national security council, cited the same images of missile debris. “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 surface-to-air Tor missile, according to information which was published on the internet,” he said in a Facebook post on Thursday.

Some members of the 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.

The US magazine Newsweek and CBS News also quoted intelligence sources claiming the jet had been shot down.

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.

On Thursday morning Zelenskiy said his government was considering “several possibilities” but asked people to refrain from speculating.

The timing of the disaster, a few hours after Iran fired ballistic missiles at US forces stationed in Iraq in retaliation for the assassination of Gen Qassem Suleimani, has fuelled speculation that it might have been linked to the hostilities.

Witnesses to the crash on the ground and from passing aircraft said they saw the jet burst into flames while still in the air, according to a preliminary Iranian report, which stated technical problems were the most likely reason.

It confirmed that both the aircraft’s black boxes had been recovered, giving investigators access to data and cockpit communications, though some parts of their memory had been damaged in the crash.

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 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”.

Zelenskiy said Ukrainian officials arrived in Tehran early on Thursday and that he would speak to the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, to ensure close cooperation.

Of the 176 people on board, 79 were Iranian, 63 were Canadian and 11 were Ukrainian (including nine crew members), along with 10 Swedish, seven Afghans, three Britons and three German nationals.

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