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Missile strike seen by US officials as likely cause of Ukrainian jet crash in Tehran

By JENNIFER JACOBS and ALAN LEVIN • Jan 9, 2020 at 4:23 PM

WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence officials increasingly believe that the Ukrainian jet that fell from the sky after taking off from Tehran on Wednesday was shot down by a missile, according to two people familiar with the evidence.

Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 plunged from the sky minutes after a pre-dawn takeoff, killing all 176 people aboard. The Boeing Co. 737-800 was on fire as it plunged, according to witnesses on the ground and in other aircraft, according to a preliminary Iranian report on the crash.

The U.S. government has obtained evidence indicating that the rapid descent was not the result of a mechanical issue on the plane or errors by the pilots, said the people, who asked not to be named discussing intelligence reports.

Hassan Rezaeifar, head of an Iranian joint investigation commission on the crash, denied that evidence of a missile strike had been found, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

The intelligence assessment is consistent with what aviation accident experts have said. The apparent rapid spread of the fire combined with the sudden halt of radio transmissions from the plane after a normal climb aren’t consistent with previous crashes, said Jeffrey Guzzetti, the former head of accident investigations at the Federal Aviation Administration.

While Iranian officials initially said they suspected a problem with one of the plane’s engines, they retracted that in a preliminary report issued Thursday. The government also took the unusual step of setting up an investigative group to examine whether “any unlawful actions” initiated the fire on the plane, the preliminary report said.

The U.K. called for a full investigation into the crash.

“There needs to be a full, credible and transparent investigation into what happened. We want to see that happen as soon as possible,” Jamie Davies, spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, told reporters in London. “Reports we’ve seen are extremely concerning and we’re looking into them.”

Johnson spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Thursday and expressed his condolences, Davies said. “The prime minister offered support and will be working with Ukraine on how best to support them.”

U.S. President Donald Trump, speaking to reporters in Washington on Thursday, said “I have my suspicions” about why the plane went down but said he didn’t want to say what those suspicions are.

“It was flying in a pretty rough neighborhood,” Trump said. “Somebody could have made a mistake.”

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(Thomas Penny contributed to this report.)

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©2020 Bloomberg News

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