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Did Iran mistakenly shoot down a flight amid tensions with U.S.? Here’s what we know

Hours after Iranian missiles hit American-held bases in Iraq, Ukrainian International Airlines flight PS752 was downed outside Tehran, killing 176 people.

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In this Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020 photo a rescue worker searches the scene where a Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran.

Ebrahim Noroozi, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Only hours after Iranian ballistic missile strikes hit American-occupied bases in Iraq, Iranian surface-to-air missile systems on alert — likely in anticipation of potential U.S. retaliation — are suspected to have accidentally targeted a passenger jet leaving Tehran airport late Wednesday morning, killing all those aboard the flight.

A day after Ukrainian International Airlines flight PS752 crashed outside of Iran’s capital of Tehran killing 176 people on board, Newsweek reported Thursday morning that the plane was shot down by an Iranian anti-aircraft missile. 

The plane went down moments after taking off from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport, and is believed to have been hit by an Russian-made, Iranian-owned Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile, Newsweek reported, citing “a Pentagon official, a senior U.S. intelligence official and an Iraqi intelligence.” The two American sources, who had not been authorized to comment publicly, believed the deadly missile strike to have been an accident. 

The downing of the aircraft — and death of all those on board — was suspected to be caused by Iranian anti-aircraft systems being active in anticipation of potential U.S. retribution following the Iranian missile, according to Newsweek’s reporting. The barrage of Iranian missiles, which took place only hours before flight PS752 took off from Tehran, was a retaliatory attack after an American drone strike authorized by President Donald Trump targeted and killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

According to a review of satellite data, the UIA flight had been “airborne for two minutes after departing Tehran when the heat signatures of two surface-to-air missiles were detected,” reported Reuters Thursday, citing a U.S. official. An explosion near the plane was detected and the plane appeared to be on fire, according to Reuters.

Witnesses said the plane was in flames while still airborne and turned back toward Imam Khomeini International Airport before crashing into a fireball about 10 miles northeast of the city of Shahedshahr, according to The Associated Press and CNN.

The flight was bound for Kyiv, Ukraine, and would have been full of fuel.

“Given the crew’s experience, error probability is minimal. We do not even consider such a chance,” Ukrainian International Airlines said in statement Wednesday afternoon, expressing confidence that crew error did not cause the crash. The three pilots flying the aircraft had a combined experience of more than 30,000 hours on Boeing 737s, UIA said, and the plane had just gone through scheduled maintenance on Jan. 6.

The airline said 167 passengers and 9 crew members were on board.

U.S. officials were sharing intelligence about the surface-to-air strike with Canada, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Company.

A majority of the passengers were Iranians, and 138 travelers — many of them students returning from holiday break — were expected to make a connecting flight in Kyiv to Canada, the CBC reported. Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Vadym Prystaiko reported there were 82 Iranians, 63 Canadian, 11 Ukrainians (9 of which were crew), 10 Swedes, four Afghans, three Germans and three British citizens among the dead, according to the CBC.