Iran denies missile hit plane, calls on West to share data

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - Iran is denying a missile hit a Ukrainian airplane that crashed near Tehran this week and is calling on the U.S. and Canada to release data backing their allegations.

An investigation team was at the site of the crash in farmland near the Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran, Iran. (Source: IRNA/CNN)

The head of Iran's national aviation department spoke Friday in a news conference in Tehran over the crash.

Western leaders say the plane appeared to have been unintentionally hit by an Iranian missile around the time Iran launched a ballistic missile strike on two American bases in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of its top general in a U.S. airstrike.

If the U.S. and Canada provide proof of a missile strike it could inflame public opinion in Iran after many rallied around authorities following the U.S. airstrike that killed Iran's top general last week.

An Iranian official is denying a missile hit a Ukrainian airplane that crashed near Tehran and is calling on both the U.S. and Canada to release data backing their missile-strike allegation.

The comment from Ali Abedzadeh came on Friday in a news conference in Tehran over the crash.

Iran's state media say authorities have invited Boeing to take part in the investigation into a Ukrainian jetliner that crashed, killing all 176 people on board.

The move came after U.S., Canadian and British officials said the plane appeared to have been unintentionally hit by an Iranian missile amid soaring tensions between Washington and Tehran.

The state-run IRNA news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying Iran "has invited both Ukraine and the Boeing company to participate in the investigations.”

He says it will also welcome experts from other countries’ whose citizens died in the crash.

President Donald Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson all agreed that the fatal anti-aircraft missile could well have been fired at the jetliner by mistake.

Two U.S. officials say it was “highly likely” that an Iranian anti-aircraft missile downed the jetliner. The officials, citing U.S. intelligence, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.

Trump suggested he believes Iran was responsible. He is dismissing Iranian claims that it was a mechanical issue that brought down the plane —and is denying any U.S. responsibility.

Trudeau, whose country lost at least 63 citizens in the crash, said Thursday that evidence indicates an Iranian missile downed the jetliner but “may have been unintentional.”

Trudeau said Canadian and allied intelligence supports that. He declined to get into the intelligence.

Johnson said, “There is now a body of information that the flight was shot down by an Iranian surface to air missile.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also said his government received intelligence that suggests the plane was shot down unintentionally.

Meanwhile, Iran has invited the U.S. accident-investigating agency to take part in the probe of the crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board says it will “evaluate its level of participation in the investigation.”

The extent of the NTSB’s role could be limited by U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Under rules set by a United Nations aviation organization, the NTSB is entitled to participate in the investigation because the crash involved a Boeing 737-800 jet that was designed and built in the U.S.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board says it has accepted an invitation from Iran’s accident investigation agency to visit the site where the plane crashed.

The board said it is making arrangements to travel to the site, and that it will be working with other groups and organizations already there.

The crash came just a few hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack against Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops amid a confrontation with Washington over a U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Ukraine’s leader says Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has assured him of full cooperation in investigating the fatal crash of a Ukrainian airliner near the Iranian capital and that Iran would provide experts access to all data.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy spoke with Rouhani by telephone on Thursday.

Iranian investigators say the crew of the Ukrainian jetliner that crashed outside Tehran the previous day never made a radio call for help and were trying to turn back to the airport when the plane went down.

Iran’s civil aviation authority made the comments in a preliminary crash report released on Thursday.

The Boeing 737-800 crashed just hours after Iran launched a barrage of missiles at U.S. forces but while the timing of the disaster led to questions by some aviation experts, Iranian officials blamed mechanical trouble.

Wednesday’s crash killed all 176 people on board the Ukrainian jetliner, many of them from Iran and also Canada, but also of other nationalities. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed his government will get answers.

The British government says it is investigating “very concerning” reports about the crash.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office says “the reports we have seen are very concerning and we are urgently looking into them.”

Johnson spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Thursday and called for “a full, credible and transparent investigation into what happened,” Downing Street said.

Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s Security Council, told Ukrainian media that officials had several working theories regarding the crash, including a missile strike, the Associated Press reports.

“A strike by a missile, possibly a Tor missile system, is among the main (theories), as information has surfaced on the internet about elements of a missile being found near the site of the crash,” Danilov said. He did not elaborate on where he saw the information on the internet.

The 737-800 model has been the subject of inspections and repairs since last year, after airlines started reporting cracks in a part that keeps the wings attached to the fuselage, according to the Associated Press.

It is an older model than the Boeing 737 MAX, which has been grounded for nearly 10 months following two deadly crashes.

Commercial airlines are rerouting flights throughout the Middle East to avoid potential danger during heightened tensions between the United States and Iran.

Jumbled schedules could effect as many as 15,000 passengers per day, lengthen flight times by an average of 30 to 90 minutes, and severely bruise the bottom line for airlines, industry analysts said.

Copyright 2020 Associated Press. Gray Media Group, Inc., contributed to this report. All rights reserved.