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'Highly likely' Iran downed Ukrainian jetliner, U.S. officials say

Last Updated Jan 9, 2020 at 10:53 am PDT

CORRECTS YEAR - Debris is seen from a plane crash on the outskirts of Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying at least 170 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran’s main airport, killing all onboard, state TV reported. (AP Photos/Mohammad Nasiri)

Two U.S. officials said it was 'highly likely' an Iranian anti-aircraft missile downed the Ukrainian plane on Wednesday

The crash came just a few hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack against Iraqi military bases

Donald Trump suggested he believes Iran was responsible for the crash, but wouldn't directly lay blame on Tehran

WASHINGTON – U.S. officials said Thursday it was “highly likely” that an Iranian anti-aircraft missile downed a Ukrainian jetliner on Wednesday, killing all 176 people on board, including dozens of Canadians. They suggested it could well have been a mistake.

The crash came just a few hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack against Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops and some Canadians amid a confrontation with Washington over the U.S. drone strike that killed an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general last week.

Two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence, said they had no certain knowledge of Iranian intent. But they said the airliner could have been mistaken for a threat.

President Donald Trump suggested that he believes Iran was responsible. He wouldn’t directly lay the blame on Tehran, but dismissed their claims that the plane was brought down by a mechanical issue — and denied any U.S. responsibility.

“Somebody could have made a mistake on the other side,” Trump said, noting the plane was flying in a “pretty rough neighborhood.”

“Some people say it was mechanical,” Trump added. “I personally don’t think that’s even a question.”

The U.S. officials wouldn’t say what intelligence they had that pointed to an Iranian missile. However, they acknowledged the existence of satellites and other sensors in the region, as well as the likelihood of communication interceptions and other similar intelligence.

A third U.S. official said the intelligence pointing to likely Iranian responsibility became clearer overnight into Thursday.

A preliminary Iranian investigative report released Thursday said that the airliner pilots never made a radio call for help and that the aircraft was trying to turn back for the airport when the burning plane went down.

The Iranian report suggests that a sudden emergency struck the Boeing 737 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines late Tuesday, when it crashed, just minutes after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran.

Ukrainian investigators have said they haven’t ruled out that the plane may have been hit by a missile when it crashed soon after takeoff from Tehran’s airport. Meanwhile, the British government said it would investigate “very concerning” reports about the crash.

The development came after Iran’s aviation authority said it had invited Canadian investigators from the Transportation Safety Board to join a growing multi-national team probing the crash.

Both Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne and Transport Minister Marc Garneau have stressed Canadians have many questions about what happened.

“We lost contact with it, suggesting that something very unusual happened, but we cannot speculate at this point,” Garneau said of the doomed airliner.

It’s not clear what role Canadian investigators will play, if they’ll have access to the crash site, or be allowed to examine all the data from the black boxes.

The crash ranked among the worst losses of life for Canadians in an aviation disaster. The flag over Parliament in Ottawa was lowered to half-staff, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed to get to the bottom of the disaster.

The plane was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, at least 63 Canadians, and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. Many of the passengers were believed to be international students attending universities in Canada.