The Ukrainian jet that crashed after taking off from a Tehran airport may have been downed by a missile, a U.S. official not authorized to speak publicly confirmed to USA TODAY.
The confirmation came after a London-based global information firm reported Thursday that the plane, carrying 176 passengers and crew, likely was mistakenly shot down by an Iranian missile. No one survived the crash.
“Photographs purportedly taken near the site of the crash and circulated on social media appear to show the guidance section of an SA-15 Gauntlet short-range, surface to air missile, which landed in a nearby garden,” the firm IHS Markit said in its report.
The firm said it could not confirm the authenticity of the photos but “assesses them to be credible.”
Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 crashed hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on Iraqi bases housing U.S. soldiers.
President Trump said Thursday he found the crash suspicious and that “somebody could have made a mistake on the other side.”
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In Ukraine, Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, said that investigators were looking into claims that parts of a Russian-made, surface-to-air missile stocked by Iran had been found near the crash site.
The head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, Ali Abedzadeh, quickly moved to dispute any suggestion that it shot down Ukraine’s commercial airliner, according to Iran state media. The Fars News Agency, citing Abedzadeh, said its missiles were not capable of reaching that altitude. Abedzadeh characterized the suggestion as “scientifically impossible.”
In a preliminary crash report issued Thursday, Iran’s civil aviation authority said the plane’s crew never made a radio call for help and were trying to turn back to the airport when the plane went down. The plane apparently suffered engine failure, Iranian officials said.
IHS Markit says publicly available air traffic data is “not consistent” with Iran’s claim. The firm says flight data shows a normal ascent until the plane disappears at 8,000 feet.
“This is consistent with a catastrophic incident onboard the aircraft,” the report said.
The report adds that “A pilot of an airliner that took off from Tehran airport shortly after UIA Flight 752 told an IHS Markit source that he watched the aircraft take off and then explode in midair.”
Iran authorities say they have recovered the audio and data recorders from the flight, but say they won’t allow Boeing or U.S. aviation officials access to the black boxes.
The evidence overwhelmingly points to a catastrophic event in midair, said Mary Schiavo, a former U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general. She said not only did the flight’s crew not send out a distress call, the plane itself has the capability to report any mechanical issues. It did not.
“It’s clear that the aircraft did not send any problem messages back to the airline,” she said, adding that “the aircraft did not turn around. Any turn that people saw was the aircraft falling from the sky.”
CBS News, citing unnamed sources, reported that U.S. intelligence picked up signals of a radar being turned on, and that U.S. satellites also detected two surface-to-air missile launches shortly before the plane exploded. Federal officials were briefed on the intelligence Thursday, and a source who was in the briefing said it appears missile components were found near the crash site, CBS reported.
Newsweek, citing two Pentagon officials, said the plane was struck by an anti-aircraft missile. The officials told Newsweek the strike was likely accidental.
CNN, citing multiple US. officials, also reported that the strike was likely an Iranian missile and accidental. The officials cited analysis of data from satellites, radar and electronic data collected routinely by U.S. military and intelligence.
Ukraine have been here before. A Malaysia Airlines jetliner was downed over eastern Ukraine in 2014, resulting in 298 deaths. The investigation showed it was destroyed by a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile fired from eastern Ukraine in an area held by pro-Russian rebels.
Ukraine became part of a four-nation team led by the Dutch that brought charges against four suspects after a five-year investigation. Those charged included three Russians and a Ukrainian.
Iran, too, has mourned military shootdowns of civilian jetliners. In 1988, the guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes accidentally shot down an Iran Air jet over the Persian Gulf shortly after its takeoff from Tehran.
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard; Curtis Tate and Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY