Iran on Saturday admitted its military accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner near Tehran airport, making a U-turn on several days of denials, as the country’s president described the downing of the flight as “a great tragedy and unforgivable mistake”.
The jetliner, a Boeing 737 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines, went down on the outskirts of Tehran during take-off on Wednesday morning, killing all 176 on board, in an incident that came just hours after Iran launched a barrage of missiles at US forces.
The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, at least 57 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials.
Iranian state media said on Saturday the plane was mistaken for a “hostile target” after it turned toward a “sensitive military centre” of the Revolutionary Guard. The military was at its “highest level of readiness”, the statement said, amid the heightened tensions with the US.
“In such a condition, because of human error and in a unintentional way, the flight was hit,” the statement said.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday apologised for the “unforgivable mistake”.
“Armed Forces’ internal investigation has concluded that regrettably missiles fired due to human error caused the horrific crash of the Ukrainian plane & death of 176 innocent people,” he said in a statement.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake. My thoughts and prayers go to all the mourning families. I offer my sincerest condolences.”
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif blamed “US adventurism” for the human error.
“A sad day. Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster. Our profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations,” Zarif said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday demanded that Iran punish those responsible for the downing of a Ukrainian airliner and pay compensation.
“We expect Iran … to bring the guilty to the courts,” the Ukrainian leader said, calling also for the “payment of compensation”.
Iran had denied for several days that a missile was behind the crash, maintaining that technical error was to blame.
Iran’s aviation authority said on Friday that Iranian and Ukrainian officials had started investigating the crash, amid mounting claims the jet was shot down.
Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau on Thursday cited “intelligence from multiple sources” suggesting that the plane was shot down. “This may well have been unintentional,” he said.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday it was “likely that that plane was shot down by an Iranian missile”.
“When we get results of that investigation, I am confident we and the world will take appropriate actions in response,” Pompeo added.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for the “fullest transparency” on the circumstances of the disaster, amid reports that the plane’s engines could have been produced at least partially in France.
“If we are asked, we could provide our expertise,” he told RTL radio. “For the moment, we have not been asked.”
US officials have not said what intelligence they had that pointed to an Iranian missile but acknowledged the existence of satellites and other sensors in the region, as well as the likelihood of communication intercepts.
US and Canadian accident investigators were uncertain how much access they will get to the site of a Ukrainian passenger jet crash in Iran, and there were fears on Friday that the probe could already be compromised by the removal of wreckage.
Television reports on Friday indicated that debris had been cleared from the crash site, leaving the area to scavengers to pick over.
If the wreckage was indeed moved, some clues might have been lost unless the Iranians took careful steps to preserve evidence.
“Normally you would very carefully map out a debris field. If a missile struck the airplane, you would expect to find some pieces of it and residue of the explosive,” said Steven Wallace, former head of the accident-investigations office of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Jeff Guzzetti, a former accident investigator and FAA official, said he would not be troubled by a cleanup if the Iranians first documented the exact location of every large piece, stored them properly and agreed to let investigators from the US and other countries inspect them.
“If they didn’t do those things, then they’re just incompetent and you could end up destroying or at least hampering the investigation significantly by altering the evidence and contaminating it,” Guzzetti said.
“If they truly believe it was not a missile strike, then they have to make sure they know exactly what failed first when they came apart in the air,” he said.
The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on Thursday said Iranian authorities had invited them to take part in the investigation.
The move indicated Iran intends to follow international standards for accident investigations, which are set by a United Nations aviation group. Those rules say the investigative agency in the country where the plane was built and the manufacturer should be included in the investigation.
However, it was unclear on Friday when the NTSB might send anyone to Iran because of US sanctions against doing business with Iran and because of the danger to Americans. An NTSB spokesman declined to comment.
Canadian Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne on Friday said that Canada wanted to take part in the investigation and help in the identification of victims but that Iran has granted just two visas so far.
Iran’s top aviation official said shortly after the crash that Iran would not turn over the black boxes to US authorities or Boeing. US safety experts said that was not a problem if the boxes were sent to experts in another country who were capable of analysing them, such as France’s Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation.
Hassan Rezaeifar, the head of the Iranian investigation team, on Friday 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.
Aviation experts believe Iran lacks the expertise and facilities to analyse the boxes, and the country is under pressure to turn them over to outside investigators with advanced laboratories. But almost all of those are in the US or American allies such as France.
“If [Iran is] going to try to manhandle data out of broken, mashed-up flight recorders, they could very easily end up erasing the recorders or corrupting the data,” Guzzetti said.
If the Iranians go it alone without seeking outside technical help, “the credibility of the investigation will be zero in the worldwide aviation community”, Wallace, the former FAA official, said. “But this is a heavily fraught political situation.”