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Ukrainian airliner crashes in Iran, 176 killed

A Ukrainian airliner crashed shortly after take-off from Tehran early on Wednesday, bursting into flames and killing all 176 people on board, Reuters reports.

Debris and smouldering engine parts from the Boeing 737, which carrier Ukraine International Airlines said was last serviced two days ago, were strewn across a field southwest of the Iranian capital where rescue workers in face masks laid out scores of body bags.

Among the victims were 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians, 10 Swedes, three Germans and three Britons, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said. Most passengers were in transit, the airline said.

The accident occurred as confrontation between Iran and the United States threatens to trigger a wider conflict in the Middle East, and officials cautioned that speculation about what happened was premature.

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It was the Kiev-based carrier’s first fatal crash, and it said it was doing everything possible to establish the cause.

Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said was in touch with Ukraine’s government. “Our hearts are with the loved ones of the victims … We will continue to keep Canadians informed as the situation evolves,” he said on Twitter.

Under international rules, responsibility for investigating the crash lies with Iran, and Iranian state television said both of the plane’s black box voice and data recorders had been found.

The semi-official Mehr news agency quoted the head of Iran’s civil aviation organization as saying it was not clear which country Iran would send the black boxes to analyze the data, but it would not give them to Boeing.

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An amateur video, run by Iranian news agencies and purportedly of the crashing plane, showed a flash in a dark sky descending rapidly with comments that the aircraft was “on fire”, and then a brighter flash as it appears to hit the ground. Reuters could not authenticate the footage.

Asked at a briefing in Kiev if the plane could have been downed by a missile, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk cautioned against speculation until the results of the investigation were known.

Relations between Washington and Tehran are in crisis, with Iran having launched missiles at bases housing U.S. forces in Iraq hours before the plane crash, in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike last week that killed an Iranian military commander.

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Major airlines canceled Iran and Iraq flights on Wednesday and re-routed others away from both countries’ airspace, following an Iranian missile strike on United States-led forces in Iraq.

Germany’s Lufthansa, Dubai-based Emirates and low-cost flydubai were among airlines that canceled flights, as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration barred American carriers from the area. But several other carriers continued operations over the affected airspace.

Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles from its territory targeting at least two Iraqi military bases hosting U.S.-led coalition personnel early on Wednesday, the U.S. military said.

Within hours, the FAA barred U.S. carriers from airspace over Iran, the Gulf of Oman and the waters between Iran and Saudi Arabia, citing “heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the Middle East, which present an inadvertent risk to U.S. civil aviation operations.”

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Ukraine will send a team of experts to Iran later on Wednesday to investigate the circumstances of the crash of an Ukrainian airliner, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said after meeting government officials.

“Our priority is to establish the truth and those responsible for this terrible catastrophe,” he said in a statement on Facebook.

Zelenskiy said he had instructed his prosecutor general to open criminal proceedings following the crash, without specifying who they would involve.

Under international rules, Ukraine would be party to the investigation, and the United States would usually be accredited as the country where the jet was designed and built. France, where engine maker CFM has half its activities, may also be involved.

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There was no immediate word on whether the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board would be involved. The NTSB usually invites Boeing to give technical advice in such investigations.

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