By Alexander Cornwell, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Natalia Zinets
DUBAI/KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine outlined four potential scenarios on Thursday to explain the deadly crash of one of its airliners in Iran, including a missile strike and terrorism, as Iranian investigators said the plane was on fire before it fell to the ground.
Kiev said its investigators wanted to search the site of Wednesday’s crash southwest of Tehran for possible debris of a Russian-made missile used by Iran’s military. An initial report by Iran’s civil aviation organization said the plane had experienced an unspecified technical problem.
The Ukrainian International Airlines Boeing 737-800, flying to Kiev and carrying mostly Iranians and Iranian-Canadians, crashed shortly after taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport, killing all 176 people on board.
The Iranian report cited witnesses on the ground and in a passing aircraft flying at a high altitude as saying the plane was on fire while in the air.
It said the three-year-old airliner, which had its last scheduled maintenance on Monday, encountered a technical problem shortly after take-off and started to head toward a nearby airport before it crashed. The report said there was no radio communication from the pilot and that the aircraft disappeared from radar at 8,000 feet (2,440 m).
It is so far unclear if any technical issue could be related to a maintenance fault or defective part.
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.
The Iranian report referred to the crash as an accident.
Investigations into airliner crashes are complex, requiring regulators, experts and companies across several international jurisdictions to work together. It can take months to fully determine the cause and issuing an initial report within 24 hours is rare.
A Canadian security source told Reuters there was evidence one of the engines had overheated.
The crash happened hours after Iran launched missile attacks on U.S.-led forces in Iraq, leading some to speculate that the plane may have been hit.
The initial assessment of Western intelligence agencies was that the plane had suffered a technical malfunction and had not been brought down by a missile, five security sources – three Americans, one European and the Canadian – who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
Ukraine Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danylov said the country’s investigators wanted to search for possible Russian missile debris after seeing information on the internet.
He referred to an unverified image circulated on Iranian social media purportedly showing the debris of a Russian-made Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile of the kind used by the Iranian military.
Ukrainian investigators into the crash include experts who participated in the investigation into the 2014 shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, Danylov 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.
In a televised statement, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy earlier asked people to refrain from speculation, conspiracy theories and hasty evaluations regarding the crash. He declared Thursday a day of national mourning.
Zelenskiy said he would speak by telephone with the Iranian president to step up cooperation in investigating the crash.
Ukraine is looking at various possible causes, including a missile attack, a collision, an engine explosion or terrorism.
Countries recognized under a UN-administered convention as participants should nominate who they wish to be involved in the Iran-led investigation, the Iranian report said.
Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne called his Iranian counterpart to stress the need for Canadian officials “to be quickly granted access to Iran to provide consular services, help with identification of the deceased and take part in the investigation of the crash”, a Canadian statement said.
“Canada and Canadians have many questions which will need to be answered.”
Zelenskiy, in a phone call with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, invited Britain to join the investigation, Zelenskiy’s office said.
“Boris Johnson supported this idea and stressed that the best British experts should be involved in finding out all the circumstances of the tragedy,” it said.
As the country where the plane was designed and built, the United States would usually be allowed to be accredited but neither side has said whether U.S. investigators will be dispatched to Iran.
Iran’s aviation body could not be reached for comment to clarify its position.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran have risen with the United States’ killing of a top Iranian general on Friday. Tehran retaliated with a missile strike on U.S. targets in Iraq.
The Ukrainian airliner took off at 6:12 a.m. local time and was given permission to climb to 26,000 feet, the report said. It crashed six minutes later near the town of Sabashahr.
Bodies and body parts recovered from the site of the crash have been taken to the coroner’s office for identification, the report said.
Smouldering debris, including shoes and clothes, was strewn across a field where the plane crashed on Wednesday. Rescue workers in face masks laid out scores of body bags.
Onboard were 146 Iranians, 10 Afghans, 11 Ukrainians, five Canadians and four Swedes, the report said, but said some may have held citizenship of other countries.
Ukrainian authorities have said those on board included 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, and 11 Ukrainians.
The Tehran-Toronto via Kiev route was a popular for Canadians of Iranian descent visiting Iran in the absence of direct flights.
(Reporting by Alexander Cornwell & Babak Dehghanpisheh in Dubai, Natalia Zinets & Pavel Polityuk in Kiev; Additional reporting by Tim Hepher in Paris, Jamie Freed in Sydney, Allison Lampert in Montreal, Steve Scherer in Ottawa, Laurence Frost in Paris, Matthias Williams in Kiev, Mark Hosenball in Washington and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Writing by Alexander Cornwell, Editing by Angus MacSwan, Catherine Evans and Nick Macfie)