Ukrainian airplane crashes near Iran capital

SHAHEDSHAHR, Iran (AP) — A Ukrainian passenger jet carrying
176 people crashed on Wednesday, just minutes after taking off from the Iranian
capital’s main airport, turning farmland on the outskirts of Tehran into fields
of flaming debris and killing all onboard. 

The crash of Ukraine International Airlines came hours after
Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on Iraqi bases housing U.S. soldiers,
but Iranian officials said they suspected a mechanical issue brought down the
3½-year-old Boeing 737-800 aircraft. Ukrainian officials initially agreed, but
later backed away and declined to offer a cause while the investigation is
ongoing.

The plane carried 167 passengers and nine crew members from
different nations. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, said that there
were 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians on board — the Ukrainian
nationals included two passengers and the nine crew. There were also 10
Swedish, four Afghan, three German and three British nationals, he said. 

Airline officials said most of the passengers were en route
to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, transiting through there to other destinations.
Staff at the Boryspil airport in Kyiv, told the Associated Press that
passengers on this flight are usually Iranian students coming back to Ukraine
after winter holidays.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy extended his
condolences to the families of the victims. His office said he had cut his
visit to Oman short and was returning to Kyiv because of the crash. The country’s
Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk confirmed the casualty toll. 

“Our task is to establish the cause of the crash of the
Boeing and provide all necessary help to the families of the victims,” said
parliament speaker, Dmytro Razumkov, in a Facebook statement. 

The crash shocked Canada. Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne called it tragic news and
said Wednesday Canada’s “hearts are with the loved ones of the victims,
including many Canadians.”

Ukraine International Airlines said it had indefinitely
suspended flights to Tehran after the crash. “It was one of the best planes we
had, with an amazing, reliable crew,” Yevhen Dykhne, president of the Ukraine
International Airlines, said at a briefing following the crash. 

Zelenskiy, the Ukrainian president, ordered a sweeping
inspection of all civil airplanes in the country, “no matter the conclusions
about the crash in Iran.”

The plane had been delayed from taking off from Imam
Khomeini International Airport by almost an hour. It took off to the west, but
never made it above 8,000 feet in the air, according to data from the
flight-tracking website FlightRadar24. 

It remains unclear what happened. Qassem Biniaz, a spokesman
for Iran’s Road and Transportation Ministry, said it appeared a fire struck one
of its engines. The pilot of the aircraft then lost control of the plane,
sending it crashing into the ground, Biniaz said, according to the state-run
IRNA news agency. 

Hassan Razaeifar, the head of 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.
Authorities later said they found the plane’s so-called “black boxes,” which
record cockpit conversations and instrument data.

Ukrainian authorities have offered to help with the
investigation of the plane crash. “We’re preparing a group of specialists in
order to help with the search operation and the investigation of the cause of
the crash,” Honcharuk said. 

The plane, fully loaded with fuel for its 2,300-kilometer
(1,430-mile) flight, slammed into farmland near the town of Shahedshahr on the
outskirts of Tehran. Videos taken immediately after the crash show blazes
lighting 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 Revolutionary Guard 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 AP. “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.” 

AP journalists who reached the crash site saw a wide field
of field of debris scattered across farmland, the dead laying among shattered
pieces of the aircraft. Their possessions, 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 as they worked. 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 is a very common single-aisle,
twin-engine jetliner used for short to medium-range flights. Thousands of the
planes 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. Boeing built the aircraft that crashed Wednesday in 2016 and it
last underwent routine maintenance on Monday, Ukraine International Airlines
said. 

A number of 737-800 aircraft have been involved in deadly
accidents over the years. 

In March 2016, a FlyDubai 737-800 from Dubai crashed while
trying to land at Rostov-on-Don airport in Russia, killing 62 onboard. Another
737-800 flight from Dubai, operated by Air India Express, crashed in May 2010
while trying to land in Mangalore, India, killing more than 150 onboard. 

Such 737-800s have been the subject of inspections since
last year after airlines started reporting cracks in a part that keeps wings
attached to the fuselage. Boeing said in October that airlines around the world
had inspected 810 planes following an order from U.S. safety regulators. Of
those, 38 planes  —  or 5%  —  had
needed repairs, Boeing said at the time. It is not unusual for regulators to
require inspections of a specific component or area for planes that have been
in service a long time.

“This is a tragic event and our heartfelt thoughts are with
the crew, passengers and their families,” Chicago-based Boeing Co. said. “We
are in contact with our airline customer and stand by them in this difficult
time. We are ready to assist in any way needed.”

Boeing, like other airline manufacturers, typically assists
in crash investigations. However, that effort in this case could be affected by
the U.S. sanctions campaign in place on Iran since President Donald Trump
unilaterally withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018.

Both Airbus and Boeing had been in line to sell billions of
dollars of aircraft to Iran over the deal, which saw Tehran limit its
enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. But
Trump’s decision halted the sales. 

Under decades of international sanctions, Iran’s commercial
passenger aircraft fleet has aged, with air accidents occurring regularly for
domestic carriers in recent years, resulting in hundreds of casualties.
___ 

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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