Iran on Friday denied Western allegations that one of its own missiles downed a Ukrainian jetliner that crashed outside Tehran, and called on the U.S. and Canada to share any information they have on the crash, which killed all 176 people on board.
Iran also said it wanted to download black box recordings from the crashed airliner itself to analyze the data itself. It will announce the reason for the crash on Saturday, the semi-official Fars news agency reported Friday night, citing an informed source.
The announcement will take place after a meeting of a commission focused on air accidents but the report did not provide any information on what kind of information had been collected.
Western leaders said the plane appeared to have been unintentionally hit by a surface-to-air missile just hours after Iran launched around a dozen ballistic missiles at two U.S. bases in Iraq to avenge the killing of its top general in an American airstrike last week.
North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Jens Stoltenberg said on Friday that Iran's air defense may have shot the plane down.
"It is important that we establish all the facts there... I call on Iran to fully participate and contribute to a transparent and thorough investigation," Stoltenberg told reporters on entering an extraordinary meeting of EU foreign ministers.
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"We have no reason to not believe the reports we have seen from different NATO allies... that the plane may have been downed by Iranian air defence systems," he said.
"That's exactly why we need a thorough investigation, to establish all the facts and that's exactly why we have to have full cooperation from the Iranian side in such an investigation," he said.
Ali Abedzadeh, head of Iran's national aviation department, told a press conference, said "What is obvious for us, and what we can say with certainty, is that no missile hit the plane.”
“If they are really sure, they should come and show their findings to the world" in accordance with international standards, he added.
Hassan Rezaeifar, the head of the Iranian investigation team, said recovering data from the black box flight recorders could take more than a month and that the entire investigation could stretch into next year. He also said Iran may request help from international experts if it is not able to extract the flight recordings.
"We prefer to download the black boxes in Iran. But if we see that we can't do that because the boxes are damaged, then we will seek help," Abedzadeh said.
On social media, many Iranians expressed anger that the plane was allowed to take off and voiced worries as images, which could not be independently verified, circulated on Twitter suggesting the crash site had been cleared by bulldozers.
Iran's ambassador to Britain denied debris had been bulldozed away.
State television earlier showed the battered black boxes, saying their information could be downloaded and analyzed.
If the United States or Canada were to present incontrovertible evidence that the plane was shot down by Iran, even if unintentionally, it could have a dramatic impact on public opinion in Iran.
The ballistic missile attack on the bases in Iraq caused no casualties, raising hopes that the standoff over the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani would end relatively peacefully, though Iran has sent mixed signals over whether its retaliation is complete.
The Iranian public had rallied around the leadership after the killing of Soleimani last Friday, with hundreds of thousands joining the general’s funeral processions in several cities, in an unprecedented display of grief and unity.
But sentiments in Iran are still raw over the government’s crackdown on large-scale protests late last year sparked by an economic crisis exacerbated by U.S. sanctions. Several hundred protesters were reported to have been killed in the clampdown.
Those fissures could quickly break open again if Iranian authorities are seen to be responsible for the deaths of 176 people, mainly Iranians or dual Iranian-Canadian citizens.
U.S., Canadian and British officials said Thursday it is “highly likely” that Iran shot down the Boeing 737 that crashed near Tehran late Tuesday. U.S. officials said the jetliner might have been mistakenly identified as a threat.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose country lost at least 63 citizens in the downing, said “we have intelligence from multiple sources including our allies and our own intelligence.”
“The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile,” he said.
The U.S. officials did not say what intelligence they had that pointed to an Iranian missile, believed to be fired by Russian Tor system, known to NATO as the SA-15. But they acknowledged the existence of satellites and other sensors in the region, as well as the likelihood of communication interceptions and other similar intelligence.
Western countries may hesitate to share information on such a strike because it comes from highly classified sources.
Videos verified by The Associated Press appear to show the final seconds of the the ill-fated airliner, which had just taken off from Iran early Wednesday.
In one video, a fast-moving light can be seen through the trees as someone films from the ground. The light appears to be the burning plane, which plummets to the earth as a huge fireball illuminates the landscape.
Someone off-camera says in Farsi: “The plane has caught fire. ... In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful. God, please help us. Call the fire department!”
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said “the missile theory is not ruled out, but it has not been confirmed yet."
In a Facebook post, he reiterated his call "on all international partners" — the United States, Britain and Canada in particular — to share data and evidence relevant to the crash. He also announced plans to discuss the investigation with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later on Friday.
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko tweeted that he and the president met with U.S. embassy officials Friday and obtained "important data" about the crash. The minister didn't specify what kind of data it was, but said it would be “processed by our specialists.”
Iran's state-run IRNA news agency quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi as saying Iran "has invited both Ukraine and the Boeing company to participate in the investigations.” He later said a 10-member Canadian delegation was heading to Iran to assist victims' families.
Iran had initially said it would not allow Boeing to take part in the probe, going against prevailing international norms on crash investigations. It later invited the U.S. accident-investigating agency to take part in the investigation.
The National Transportation Safety Board said late Thursday that it would “evaluate its level of participation," but its role could be limited by U.S. sanctions on Iran. U.S. officials have also expressed concern about sending employees to Iran because of the heightened tensions.
Under rules set by a United Nations aviation organization, the NTSB is entitled to participate because the crash involved a Boeing 737-800 jet that was designed and built in the U.S.
The French air accident investigation agency, known by the French acronym BEA, is also taking part in the probe. The plane’s engine was designed by CFM International, a joint company between French group Safran and US group GE Aviation.
A preliminary Iranian investigative report released Thursday said that the airliner pilots never made a radio call for help and that the burning plane was trying to turn back for the airport when it went down.
The Iranian report suggested that a sudden emergency struck the Boeing 737, operated by Ukrainian International Airlines, just minutes after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport early Wednesday.
Those findings are not inconsistent with the effect of a surface-to-air missile. Such missiles are designed to explode near aircraft, shredding them with shrapnel. There is no need to score a direct hit, and a stricken plane may look like it is turning back when in fact it is disintegrating.
Abedzadeh, the senior aviation official, had earlier said that by law there is “full coordination” between the country's air defenses and the civil aviation system.
He said authorities have recovered two black box flight recorders, saying they are “damaged” but readable, which may shed further light on what caused the crash.
Ukraine said Iranian authorities allowed Ukrainian investigators to examine fragments of the plane late Thursday.
“It is too early on in the investigation to reveal specific details,” the statement from the Ukraine president's office said. It added that DNA is being collected from relatives of Ukrainians who died in the crash in order to identify the bodies.
Reuters contributed to this report.