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Iran to download plane black box after missile blamed for crash

US, Canadian and French representatives to travel to Tehran as part of investigation into Ukrainian flight
An image grab from footage obtained from the state-run Iran Press news agency shows what Iran's civil aviation says is the black box of the Ukrainian airline flight (AFP)

Iran said on Friday it wanted to download black box recordings itself from a Ukrainian airliner that crashed, killing all 176 people aboard, after Canada and other countries said the plane was brought down by an Iranian missile, probably by mistake.

Iran, which has denied the Boeing 737-800 was downed by a missile, said it could take one or two months to extract information from the voice and flight data recorders. 

Tehran said it could ask Russia, Canada, France or Ukraine if it needed help and added that the probe might take one or two years, the Reuters news agency reported.

On social media, many Iranians expressed anger that the plane was allowed to take off and voiced worries as images, which could not be independently verified, circulated on Twitter suggesting the crash site had been cleared by bullozers.

Other Iranians posted pictures dismissing the idea the plane was downed by mistake.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he could not rule out a missile strike but this had not been confirmed.

Kiev has said its investigators wanted to search the crash site for any debris of a Russian-made missile used by Iran.

'Important data'

Zelenskiy and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed the plane crash on Friday.

A US statement said Pompeo offered the Ukrainian leader “condolences and full assistance in the ongoing investigation” into the crash.

Zelenskiy’s office said the president briefed Pompeo about the progress in the investigation, and they agreed that Pompeo would visit Ukraine later this month.

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“Grateful for the condolences of the American people and valuable support of the US in investigating the causes of the plane crash,” Zelenskiy tweeted after the call.

“Data from the United States contains important information to help with the investigation,” he added.

Ukraine's foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, said the data would be “processed by our specialists”.

The TASS news agency reported that one of Russia's deputy foreign ministers, Sergei Ryabkov, has said that Moscow currently sees no grounds to blame Iran for the crash.

Ryabkov called on senior world officials to refrain from public statements until more details are known about the causes of the crash.

Hamid Baeidinejad, the Iranian ambassador to the UK,  has urged Western countries to stop politicising the inquiry into crash by rushing to premature judgement about its causes without hard evidence. 

In an hour long briefing on Friday, Baeidinejad said he was “disappointed that some countries including the UK, which do not have hard evidence without access to the black box, the voice recordings, air plane wreckage and the technical engineers reports in Tehran airport, are rushing to judgement. 

"That only adds to the anxiety of the families”.

The ambassador said it was not true that the crash site was being bulldozed, although the bodies, including Iranians, may be being collected from the site.

Battered black boxes

The Ukraine International Airlines flight to Kiev from Tehran crashed on Wednesday, when Iran was on alert for a US military response hours after firing missiles at bases in Iraq hosting American troops.

The incident adds to international pressure on Iran, after months of tension with the United States and then tit-for-tat military strikes. 

The US killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani last week in a drone attack in Baghdad, prompting Tehran's missile launches.

"We prefer to download the black boxes in Iran. But if we see that we can't do that because the boxes are damaged, then we will seek help," Ali Abedzadeh, head of Iran's Civil Aviation Organisation, told a news conference in Tehran.

State television earlier showed the battered black boxes, saying their information could be downloaded and analysed.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, citing intelligence from Canada and other sources, blamed an Iranian missile for bringing down the plane that had 63 Canadians on board, although he said it "may well have been unintentional".

"The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile," he said.

Ukraine's general prosecutor asked Canada "to provide information available to the Canadian side that may facilitate criminal investigations" into the crash.

Video footage

The New York Times said it had verified a video showing an Iranian missile hitting a plane near Tehran airport.

A US official, citing satellite data, said Washington had concluded with a high degree of certainty that anti-aircraft missiles brought down the plane in error.

The official said the data showed the plane airborne for two minutes after departing Tehran when heat signatures of two surface-to-air missiles were detected. 

There was an explosion in the vicinity and heat data showed the plane on fire as it fell. US military satellites detect infrared emissions from heat.

US President Donald Trump earlier said he believed "somebody could have made a mistake".

A defence expert said the plane's radar signature would have been similar to a US military transport plane, Reuters said.

'We urge Boeing to send its representative'

Iran denied the airliner had been hit by a missile, saying such reports were "psychological warfare against Iran".

"All those countries whose citizens were aboard the plane can send representatives and we urge Boeing to send its representative to join the process of investigating the black box," government spokesman Ali Rabiei said.

US, Canadian and French representatives were to travel to Tehran to attend meetings for the Iranian-led crash investigation, Iranian state media reported.

France's air accident agency said it would be involved in the investigation. The agency helped analyse data from the flight recorder of a Boeing that crashed in Ethiopia last year. 

Washington and Ottawa do not have diplomatic relations with Tehran.

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Iran's civil aviation organisation said in an initial report less than 24 hours after the incident that the three-year-old airliner, which had its last scheduled maintenance on Monday, encountered a technical problem after takeoff and was heading to a nearby airport before it crashed.

Investigations into airliner crashes can take months and initial reports in 24 hours are rare.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada said it was making arrangements to tour the site after an Iranian invitation.

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said it had designated a representative to join the probe.

Boeing, which said it would support the NTSB, is reeling from two deadly crashes of 737 MAX planes, including the one in Ethiopia, that led to the model's grounding last year.

The crashed plane was built in 2016 and is the prior generation of the 737 before the MAX.