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Accident or intentional? Previous military strikes on commercial jets suggest answer may be elusive

Looking at previous passenger planes shot down, what happened to the Ukrainian plane shot down in Iran that killed 63 Canadians.
Jason Unrau Montreal, QC

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed on Thursday what many Canadians had already heard via U.S. media–that the plane crash in Tehran that killed 63 Canadians, was caused by a surface-to-air missile strike originating from inside Iran.

“This may well have been unintentional,” Trudeau told media assembled at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa.

“(But) this new information reinforces the need for a thorough investigation into this matter… to determine the causes of this fatal crash.”

But determining why the Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 to Kyev was targeted and downed after taking off at 6:12 a.m. Wednesday (Tehran time), barely four hours after Iran executed a missile bombardment on military bases in Iraq, will be difficult.

Canada cut official diplomatic ties with Iran in 2012 and at the end of that same year officially listed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force as a “terrorist entity’’.

Officials at the Pentagon quoted in American media earlier in the day suggest the strike was accidental, as Iran’s military would have been on high alert following its earlier attack on two bases in Iraq housing NATO forces.

That missile bombardment was purported retaliation for United States’ killing of Qassem Soleimani, Iranian Quds Force commander who died at Baghdad airport on Jan. 2 in a drone strike.

While Trudeau confirmed his Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne spoke with Iranian officials on Wednesday, apart from granting Canada’s “quick reaction” consular team access to Iran, the regime continues to restrict Canadian officials from investigating the crash.

Iran is also refusing flight recorder/black box access to everyone except Ukraine’s investigators, who are conducting a joint-probe with Iranian civil aviation authorities.

“We have highlighted that it is extremely important that there be a thorough and credible investigation on site of the crash with international partners,” said Trudeau on that front.

“It doesn’t appear that there is a credible, complete investigation, but right now, we continue to work with partners and, and direct Iran with our requests that we have a credible and complete investigation.”

Asked what Canada’s response would look like in the event the plane was shot down accidentally, the prime minister said that would be predicated “on a clear understanding and a credible confirmation of what actually happened.”

Trudeau offered a variation of the same answer when asked if the missile strike against the passenger that killed Canadians constituted an act of war.

“I think it is too early to draw definitive conclusions like that one.  That is why we need a complete and credible investigation,” the PM responded.

Taking a more strident position on Iran’s actions, the Opposition Conservatives’ foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole slammed the regime in a series of Tweets.

“Whether it was intentional or not, it was an incomprehensibly reckless act that has forever scarred Canadian families and communities,” conveyed O’Toole on social media.

In addition to Canadian passengers who perished after the flaming Boeing 737-800 slammed into the outskirts of Tehran, the deceased include 82 Iranians, 11 Ukrainian passengers and crew, 10 Swedes, four Afghans, three Germans and three Britons.

Of the 176 killed, 138 on board the aircraft were bound for Canada on connecting flights from Kyiv, flight 752’s destination.

Given recent hostilities between United States and Iran that have ensnared Canadian troops in Iraq engaged in two NATO missions there, as well as official diplomatic estrangement of Canada and Iran, a complete picture of events may be years away, if at all.

Based on a short and limited history of commercial jetliners downed by military forces of United States and Russia and the latter’s para-military proxy; getting answers on these tragedies can be a long and difficult road.

To wit, one of the most anxious moments during the Cold War occurred on September 1, 1983 after the Soviet Union downed a Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 that strayed into Soviet airspace.

KAL flight 007 was bound for Seoul from New York City when it was destroyed by a Sukhoi Su-15 interceptor jet, whose pilots believed the 747 was a U.S. spy plane. All 269 passengers and crew were killed, including Georgia Congressman Larry McDonald.

That year, tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union had intensified, due in part to deployment of the Pershing II weapon system in Europe and one of the largest U.S. led naval exercises held in the North Pacific.

At the time, Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov felt U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s actions were overly aggressive and believed a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union was in the works.

July 3, 1988, United States’ navy were at the controls when they shot down Iran Air Flight 655 after it departed Tehran en route to Dubai via Bandar Abbas.

The offending projectile–a SM-2MR surface-to-air missile fired from USS Vincennes–destroyed the Airbus A300 killing all 290 people on board.

American officials claimed USS Vincennes attempted to hail the plane 10 times before finally launching the missile.

United States never conceded liability for the error, but agreed to pay $68 million in compensation for the victims’ families.

And more recently, in 2014 Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over Ukraine by a surface-to-air missile launched from a pro-Russian separatist-controlled region in east Ukraine.

A Dutch-led investigation team later concluded that Russia was responsible because it deployed the anti-aircraft missile battery to the region when Moscow was in the throes of annexing Crimea from Ukraine territory.

Russia continues to deny responsibility, and as recent as June of 2019 Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad declared that Russia was ‘scapegoat’ and disputed the investigation’s objectivity.

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Jason Unrau
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