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The Specter Of MH17 Is Looming Large Over The Ukrainian Plane Crash Probe In Iran

The Ukrainian president asked to be sent evidence about what caused the plane to crash following US media reports that it was downed by a missile.

Last updated on January 9, 2020, at 5:34 p.m. ET

Posted on January 9, 2020, at 4:04 p.m. ET

Sergei Supinsky / Getty Images

A memorial for victims of the plane crash in Iran.

Ukraine’s president has posted a plea on Facebook and Twitter asking the United States, Iran, and Canada to share whatever evidence they have to suggest that Iran shot down the Ukrainian passenger jet that crashed on Wednesday, killing all 176 people on board.

The request came after US intelligence officials were quoted in the media as saying that Iran had accidentally downed the plane shortly after it took off from the capital, Tehran.

“Ukraine is interested in the truth. We ask all our international partners to assist the investigation and provide any relevant evidence that they may have,” Volodymyr Zelensky's office said, following phone calls with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

A Ukrainian official involved in internal discussions in Kyiv told BuzzFeed News that Zelensky made the public plea because the US had not yet shown him the evidence it claims to have about the crash. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said at the time of publishing this article that, to his knowledge, Ukraine had still not been shown any evidence by the US.

In a press conference, Trudeau made clear his belief that the plane had been shot down and called for a "thorough investigation."

"The plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile, this may well have been unintentional" Canadian PM Justin Trudeau calls for a "thorough investigation" into crash of Ukrainian plane near Tehran killing 176 people, including 63 Canadians https://t.co/LuXBhmYD8X

Zelensky’s spokesperson didn’t answer a call for comment. Another administration official declined to say whether the president had been contacted by the Trump administration or anyone in the US government ahead of the media reports citing US officials.

A Ukrainian diplomat said he had reached out to his US counterparts but hadn’t received any information by the time this article was published. Another Ukrainian diplomat echoed what Zelensky said in a video address released earlier on Thursday: that the sensitive nature of the issue should be treated with caution and that it’s important that the government’s statements are based on facts rather than conjecture.

Speaking to reporters in Washington, DC, on Thursday, President Trump said he suspected the plane crash wasn't due to mechanical problems. Asked what he thought brought down the plane, he said, "Well, I have my suspicions."

"It was flying in a pretty rough neighborhood," he said. "They could've made a mistake. Some people say it was mechanical. I personally don't think that's even a question."

He added, "Something very terrible happened, very devastating."

For Kyiv, the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 crash strikes a tragic, familiar chord because it so closely resembles the confusing moments following Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 being shot down by a Russian missile system over eastern Ukraine that killed all 298 passengers and crew members in 2014.

Menahem Kahana / Getty Images

The crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

The two scenarios are remarkably similar: A commercial airliner carrying scores of civilians falls from the sky in a ball of flames, sparking tensions in a corner of the world fraught with geopolitical dangers. In the aftermath, the country in possession of the black boxes says it won’t share them, raising eyebrows about the cause of the plane crash. Conspiracy theories and speculation, fueled by confusing government statements and low-res photographs from the crash site, swirl as local authorities on the ground and open-source investigators working from their desks at home begin combing through the evidence. And then, the media carries comments from unnamed US intelligence officials who haven’t reached out to the Ukrainian government and who say the plane appears to have been shot down by a Russian-made air defense system by accident.

Flight 17 was shot down on July 17, 2014, at the height of Russia’s war against Ukraine. As the Ukrainian armed forces moved to retake key cities in the country’s eastern region that summer, they had Russia’s military forces and separatist militias on the run. Then Moscow smuggled its big guns into Ukraine, including a Buk surface-to-air missile system. It was a turning point in the war, and it galvanized much of the international community against Russia. A team of international experts investigating the case has since documented Russia’s involvement and said the incident seemed to have been a case of military error. The experts alleged that whoever fired the Buk missile that downed the plane probably thought they were aiming at a military aircraft and not a civilian airliner. Four men have been charged for their alleged involvement.

In the case of Flight 752, the crash over Tehran came as the US and Iran seemed like they might be veering dangerously toward war. Hours before, Tehran launched missile strikes against US forces in Iraq in retaliation for the US missile attack that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Before news of the US intelligence broke, Kyiv’s top national security official said on Thursday that the country was investigating whether Iran accidentally shot down the plane using a Russian-made missile. He said this even as Zelensky released a video urging against speculation until there is more evidence.

Overnight, Zelensky’s office said a 45-person team of officials and investigators, including those who worked on the downing of Flight 17, had arrived in Iran to investigate the crash of Flight 752. Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security Council, wrote on Facebook that Kyiv was negotiating with Iran to allow its experts access to the crash site southwest of Tehran where the 3-year-old Boeing plane exploded after striking the ground just minutes after takeoff.

Danilov specifically said Ukraine wanted to search the crash site for fragments from a Russian-made Tor anti-aircraft missile after seeing photographs shared on social media that purported to show the tip of a Tor missile near the site. BuzzFeed News couldn’t reach him to ask whether he had viewed an unverified video shared on social media that purported to show the moment a missile struck the plane. But the Ukrainian official who said Zelensky had not yet seen the US evidence of a missile attack said his colleagues were reviewing the video.

Danilov said the team would consider seven theories in all, four of which he made public. Those include a missile strike, a midair collision with a drone or another flying object, and an engine explosion due to mechanical failure.

“We will use everything we learned investigating the attack on the MH17 Boeing to establish the truth in the case of the crash of the Ukrainian plane in Tehran,” Danilov wrote on Facebook.

In the aftermath of the plane crash, there’s been a flurry of accusations and counteraccusations.

Iranian officials first claimed the plane crashed because of “technical failure following a fire,” but refused to hand over the black boxes found at the crash site to Boeing. Earlier on Thursday, Western media cited intelligence sources who suggested a technical problem triggered the crash. But rumors swirled of the crash possibly being the result of a missile attack.

Then reports citing Western intelligence officials surfaced later in the day, saying a Russian-made missile fired by Iran was the cause of the crash. In response, the head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization dismissed what he called “illogical rumors” about the Ukrainian airliner being hit by a missile, Reuters reported, citing the state-run Iranian Students News Agency.

“Scientifically, it is impossible that a missile hit the Ukrainian plane, and such rumors are illogical,” Ali Abedzadeh told ISNA.

The saga has weighed heavily on the people of Ukraine, who have seen their country get entangled in two accidental downings of passenger jets in less than six years. The country continues to find itself at the center of the Trump impeachment saga dragging on in Washington.

Summarizing Kyiv’s frustration, Ukrainian journalist Kristina Berdynskykh tweeted: “Ukraine fell into a whirlpool and can’t get out of it. First, Ukraine was dragged into US internal politics [with the impeachment saga]. Now, if the information is confirmed, the Ukrainian plane in Iran was shot down by a Russian missile. I don’t even know what to expect next.”

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