by Steve Herman
WHITE HOUSE – U.S. President Donald Trump is publicly voicing suspicion that Iran may have accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner.
“Somebody could have made a mistake on the other side,” said Trump of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. “Some people say it was mechanical. Personally, I don’t think that’s even a question.”
Iranian officials have maintained the Boeing 737-800, at an altitude of 2,400 meters, suffered a catastrophic engine failure early Wednesday (local time). All 176 people on board the plane bound for Kyiv died, including 63 Canadians.
But government sources tell VOA that U.S. officials have examined satellite data and imagery leading them to believe the airliner, just after taking off from Tehran, was hit by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile after being targeted accidentally.
“At some point they’ll release the black box. Ideally, they’ll get it to Boeing” [the U.S. company that built the 737-800 airliner], added Trump in remarks to reporters in the White House Roosevelt Room on Thursday.
Video of the aircraft shows it breaking up in the air in a fireball over Iran.
The crash occurred hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on Iraqi bases housing U.S. soldiers in response to last week’s U.S. drone attack that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.
The head of Iran’s of Civil Aviation Organization denies the plane could have been hit by a missile.
“Scientifically, it is impossible that a missile hit the Ukrainian plane and such rumors are illogical,” ISNA quoted Ali Abedzadeh as saying.
The governments of Ukraine and Canada are not accepting the initial assessment by Iran that the cause of the crash appeared to be a mechanical issue.
Canada’s foreign affairs minister, François-Philippe Champagne, told his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, that many questions will need to be answered, according to the ministry in Ottawa.
Investigators in Iran said the voice and data recorders from the Boeing 737 aircraft, built in 2016, were recovered from the crash site, a swathe of farmland on the outskirts of the Iranian capital, but that the so-called “black boxes” were damaged and some data had been lost.
“I hope the Iranians will work with us and provide us with the black box,” U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen, said on MSNBC, calling for the Trump administration to grant exemptions to the sanctions law so Boeing investigators from the United States could travel to Iran to cooperate with investigators there.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board typically participates in investigations of overseas air crashes when a U.S. airline or plane manufacturer is involved. But given the heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran, and the fact that the two sides have no diplomatic relations, it is uncertain whether the NTSB or Boeing would be involved in the investigation of the UIA crash.
In a statement sent to VOA’s Ukrainian Service, the NTSB said it was “monitoring developments surrounding the crash of UIA flight 752” and was “following its standard procedures” for international aviation accident investigations.
“As part of its usual procedures, the NTSB is working with the State Department and other agencies to determine the best course of action,” it said.
“The U.S. has not participated in an accident investigation in Iran since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. So, it is very unlikely that the NTSB will be involved,” said Madhu Unnikrishnan, editor of U.S. airline news service Skift Airline Weekly in a VOA Ukrainian Service interview.
The Convention on International Civil Aviation, to which Iran is a signatory, does not require Tehran to hand over the data recorders to the NTSB or Boeing, Andriy Guck, a Ukraine-based attorney and aviation expert, said.
“There is a duty to investigate,” Guck told VOA’s Ukrainian Service in a phone conversation. “Iran can decide to investigate the black boxes by itself or transfer them to a foreign laboratory. But if the Iranians do not allow anyone else to participate in the examination of the boxes, it will raise doubts about their investigation.”
UIA President Yevhen Dykhne said, “It was one of the best planes we had, with an amazing, reliable crew.”
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Tatiana Vorozhko of VOA’s Ukrainian Service and Michael Lipin of VOA’s Persian Service contributed to this report.
Photo “Ukraine International Airline Boeing 737” by Aero Icarus. CC BY-SA 2.0.