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Monday February 24th, 2020 7:21AM

Ukrainian airplane crashes near Iran's capital, killing 176

By The Associated Press
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SHAHEDSHAHR, Iran (AP) — A Ukrainian airliner carrying 176 people crashed on the outskirts of Tehran during a takeoff attempt Wednesday hours after Iran launched its missile attack on U.S. forces, scattering flaming debris and passengers' belongings across farmland and killing everyone on board.

Iranian officials said they suspected a mechanical problem brought down the 3½-year-old Boeing 737. Ukrainian officials initially agreed but later backed away and declined to offer a cause while the investigation is going on.

The Ukraine International Airlines flight was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries. Ukraine Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said there were 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians on board, along with 10 Swedish, four Afghan, three German and three British citizens.

Airline officials said most of the passengers were en route to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Passengers on the flight are often Iranian students returning to Ukraine after the winter holidays or Iranian-Canadians on their way to Toronto.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy cut short a visit to Oman to return to Kyiv and said a team of Ukrainian experts would fly to Tehran to help investigate the crash.

"Our priority is to find the truth and everyone responsible for the tragedy," Zelenskiy wrote in a Facebook statement.

Major world airlines Wednesday rerouted flights crossing the Middle East to avoid danger amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran, and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration barred American airlines from certain Persian Gulf airspace, warning of the “potential for miscalculation or misidentification" of civilian aircraft.

The plane had been delayed from taking off from Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport by almost an hour. It never made it above 8,000 feet, crashing just minutes after takeoff, according to data from the flight-tracking website FlightRadar24.

Qassem Biniaz, a spokesman for Iran's Road and Transportation Ministry, said it appeared a fire erupted in one of its engines and the pilot lost control of the plane, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.

Hassan Razaeifar, the head of the air crash investigation committee, said it appeared the pilot couldn't communicate with air-traffic controllers in Tehran in the last moments of the flight. He did not elaborate.

Ukraine International Airlines President Yevhen Dykhne, said the aircraft “was one of the best planes we had, with an amazing, reliable crew." In a statement, the airline went further, saying: "Given the crew’s experience, error probability is minimal. We do not even consider such a chance.”

Authorities said they found the plane's so-called black boxes, which record cockpit conversations and instrument data.

The crash shocked Canada, with Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne saying the country's “hearts are with the loved ones of the victims."

The plane, fully loaded with fuel for its 2,300-kilometer (1,430-mile) flight, slammed into the ground near the town of Shahedshahr, causing fires that lit up the darkened fields before dawn.

Resident Din Mohammad Qassemi said he had been watching the news about the Iranian ballistic missile attack on U.S. forces in Iraq in revenge for the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani when he heard the crash.

“I heard a massive explosion and all the houses started to shake. There was fire everywhere," he told The Associated Press. “At first I thought (the Americans) have hit here with missiles and went in the basement as a shelter. After a while, I went out and saw a plane has crashed over there. Body parts were lying around everywhere.”

The crash left a wide field of field of debris scattered across farmland, the dead lying among shattered pieces of the aircraft. Their possessions, including a child's cartoon-covered electric toothbrush, a stuffed animal, luggage and electronics, stretched everywhere.

Rescuers in masks shouted over the noise of hovering helicopters. They quickly realized there would be no survivors.

“The only thing that the pilot managed to do was steer the plane towards a soccer field near here instead of a residential area back there,” witness Aref Geravand said. "It crashed near the field and in a water canal.”

The Boeing 737-800 model that went down is an extremely common twin-engine jetliner used for short- to medium-range flights. Thousands are used by airlines around the world.

Introduced in the late 1990s, it is an older model than the Boeing 737 MAX, which has been grounded for nearly 10 months following two deadly crashes. The jet that went down on Wednesday last underwent routine maintenance on Monday, the airline said.

A number of 737-800 aircraft have been involved in deadly accidents over the years, including a FlyDubai crash in Russia in 2016 that killed 62 people and an Air India Express disaster in India in 2010 that left more than 150 dead.

The 737-800s have 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.

Boeing extended condolences to the victims' families and said it stands ready to assist. Boeing, like other airline manufacturers, typically helps in crash investigations. But that effort could be thwarted in this case by the U.S. sanctions imposed against Iran since President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

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Karimi reported from Tehran, Iran, and Gambrell from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Adam Schreck in Bangkok; Mehdi Fattahi in Tehran; Daria Litvinova in Moscow, Inna Varenytsia and Dmytro Vlasov in Kyiv, Ukraine; Carlo Piovano in London and Rob Gilles in Toronto contributed to this report.

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