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Iran denies missile downed Ukrainian plane

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Iran’s civil aviation chief denied Friday that a missile downed a Ukrainian airliner which crashed killing all 176 people on board, rejecting Western claims of a catastrophic mistake by Tehran’s air defences.

The cause of the crash is to be announced Saturday after an investigating committee meeting in the presence of foreign and local parties involved, Iran’s Fars news agency said, quoting an “informed source”.

The report came as Ukraine said its experts had been granted access to the black box flight recorders and as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated it was “likely” an Iranian missile had downed the plane.

Tehran has been facing mounting international pressure to allow a “credible” investigation into the crash, which several Western governments have blamed on an accidental missile strike.

“One thing is for certain, this airplane was not hit by a missile,” Iran’s civil aviation chief Ali Abedzadeh said, after Tehran invited the US, Ukraine, Canada and others to join the investigation.

The Boeing 737 crashed on Wednesday shortly after Iran launched missiles at US forces in Iraq in response to the killing of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike in Baghdad.

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It was Iran’s worst civil aviation disaster since 1988 when the US military said it shot down an Iran Air plane over the Gulf by mistake, killing all 290 people on board.

The majority of passengers on Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) Flight PS752 were dual national Iranian-Canadians but also included Ukrainians, Afghans, Britons and Swedes.

Vadym Prystaiko, the foreign minister of Ukraine which has sent around 50 experts to Tehran to take part in the Iran-led inquiry, said Friday: “Our team has now access to the black boxes”.

The experts, he said, also had access to the radio exchanges between the UIA pilots and Tehran air traffic control and were receiving “full cooperation” from Iran.

The Ukraine team, granted access to plane fragments and the crash site, will start analysing the contents of the black boxes, he added.

Pompeo, echoing several world leaders, said “we do believe it’s likely the plane was shot down by an Iranian missile”, adding a final determination would be made after a probe is conducted.

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