Questions, diplomatic tensions plague investigators probing Ukrainian plane crash in Iran

Ukrainian authorities on Thursday said they were considering several possible causes of Wednesday’s plane crash near Tehran, which killed everybody on board. Iranian authorities have refused to send the black boxes of the Boeing 737 to the US, but are cooperating with their Ukrainian counterparts in the investigation.

Bereaved friends and families joined in mourning as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared a national day of mourning Thursday for the victims of the crashed Ukrainian passenger jet. The Boeing 737 flight from Tehran to Kiev crashed shortly after take-off just hours after Iranian missiles targeting US forces struck two military bases in Iraq.

All 176 people on board – including 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, 10 Swedes, 11 Ukrainians, four Afghans, three Germans and three Britons – died in the crash.

Canada and the US have called for a full investigation into the crash. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government would ensure a "thorough investigation" so that "Canadians' questions are answered".

Without naming Iran directly, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement calling for "complete cooperation with any investigation into the cause of the crash".

Iran's civil aviation chief, Ali Abedzadeh, said Iran would cooperate with Ukraine, but not send the black boxes to the US, with which it has had no diplomatic relations for four decades.

Fire on board the plane, say witnesses

Iranian authorities said the plane initially headed west to leave the airport zone, turned right following a problem and was headed back to the airport at the moment of the crash.

"The plane disappeared from radar screens the moment it reached 8,000 feet (2,400 metres). The pilot sent no radio message about the unusual circumstances," the Iranian Civil Aviation Organization said on its website late Wednesday.

"According to eyewitnesses, a fire was seen on board the plane which grew in intensity," the organisation added, reporting the first findings of its investigation into the crash.

The organisation said it had questioned witnesses both on the ground and on board a second aircraft that was flying above the Ukrainian Boeing 737 as the disaster unfolded.

Reports of possible Russian missile debris

Ukrainian investigators meanwhile want to search for possible debris of a Russian missile at the site of the Iran plane crash after seeing information about it on the Internet, Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of the national security council, said on Thursday.

Ukrainian investigators into the crash include experts who participated in the investigation into the 2014 shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, Danilov said

The Malaysian airliner was shot down on July 17, 2014, over territory held by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine as it was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board.

The disaster puts a renewed spotlight on Boeing, which faces a safety crisis over a different type of 737, though the plane that crashed in Iran does not have the feature thought to have caused crashes of the grounded 737 MAX.

Investigations into airliner crashes are complex, requiring regulators, experts and companies across several international jurisdictions to work together. Issuing an initial report within 24 hours is rare and it can take months to fully determine the cause.

Little cooperation since US quit Iran nuclear deal

Black boxes from crashed jets are sometimes sent directly to Boeing's suppliers – US-based Honeywell or L3 – whenever they are too damaged to be examined properly. That would normally be carried out in coordination with the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Iran could ask another country, possibly France or Russia, to help analyse the data if needed, said Paul Hayes, safety director at aviation consultancy Ascend by Cirium, in an interview with Reuters.

With more than 60 of its nationals on board the crashed jet, Canada, which has advanced technical capabilities, could also play a key role, he added.

Previous Iranian accident reports, some of which are critical of domestic operators, have shown evidence of technical cooperation between Iran and the US. But there has been little if any contact since Washington exited a nuclear deal in 2018.

In 2015, Iran's AAIB asked the NTSB to produce a report on what it regarded as the harmful impact of sanctions on Iran's air safety. The NTSB responded that this was beyond its mission.

It is not the first time countries have squabbled over sensitive investigations as economic influence in aviation shifts steadily eastwards, where travel demand is strongest.

In March last year, Ethiopia and the NTSB clashed over the crash of a Boeing 737 MAX. France's BEA has aired differences in the past with Egypt over Airbus accidents.

The latest standoff comes at a time when the UN protocols – nicknamed Annex 13 – are struggling to adapt to the demands of social media and the increasing tendency of parties to give their own conclusions in public.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)