OTTAWA — Canadian and foreign intelligence indicates dozens of Canadians were killed by a potentially errant Iranian missile that downed their jetliner near Tehran this week, sparking a quest for answers that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested might take years.
Trudeau said Thursday that multiple sources show that an Iranian surface-to-air missile downed the Ukraine International Airlines flight that crashed near Tehran on Wednesday. It killed all 176 people on board, including 138 passengers bound for Canada.
The crash came after a week of soaring tensions in the Middle East, and just hours after Iran launched missile attacks on bases in Iraq where American and allied troops are stationed. Iran said the attacks were retaliation for the American killing of Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani near Baghdad last week.
Trudeau said it was too soon to blame any particular country for Canada’s losses, including the United States. Trudeau repeatedly said there needs to be a complete and thorough investigation to get “a complete picture of what happened.”
“The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. This may well have been unintentional,” Trudeau told a Parliament Hill news conference Thursday afternoon.
He declined to offer other details about the nature of the information in Canada’s hands but added that “the preliminary conclusions we’ve been able to draw based on intelligence and evidence today are clear enough for me to share them with Canadians right now.”
Trudeau said he knows the news will compound the suffering of grieving families. “My thoughts instantly went to how much harder this must make it for those families who are experiencing just a terrible amount of grief right now.”
The plane crashed minutes after taking off from Tehran’s airport, apparently on fire as it went down.
Earlier Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump suggested he believes Iran was responsible, without laying direct blame.
“Somebody could have made a mistake on the other side,” Trump said in a Washington news conference, noting the plane was flying in a “pretty rough neighbourhood.”
“Some people say it was mechanical,” Trump added. “I personally don’t think that’s even a question.”
Trudeau said he had no comment on what Trump had said.
Iran’s civil aviation authority is leading the investigation, under international rules for probes of such crashes. Late Thursday Canada’s Transportation Safety Board confirmed it has been invited by the authority to “attend the accident site.”
“We have accepted this invitation and we are making arrangements to travel to the site,” the board said in a statement.
Before the western leaders began saying publicly they believed the airliner had been shot down, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency quoted Hasan Rezaeifa, the head of the Iranian investigation commission, claiming that “the topics of rocket, missile or anti-aircraft system is ruled out.”
Trudeau said Canadian consular officials are headed to Turkey and that Iran would be open to issuing visas so they can enter the country. He said Iran has indicated “an openness” to Canada taking part in an investigation. Canada and Iran broke off diplomatic relations in 2012.
Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne spoke to his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, about the need for Canadian officials to be allowed into Iran to provide consular services, help with identification of the deceased and to take part in the investigation.
Champagne also told Zarif that Canada condemned Iran’s missile attacks against the military bases in Iraq, one of which holds Canadian troops. He described the conversation as “open and encouraging.”
Trudeau spoke to several world leaders, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Dutch Prime Minister Marc Rutte and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Trudeau said Zelensky told him that the Iranians planned to keep the plane’s black boxes in their country but would allow Ukrainian investigators access to the vital flight data they contain. Zelensky pledged Ukraine’s full co-operation with Canada.
Rutte, meanwhile, provided insights into the investigation led by the Netherlands — lasting more than five years and counting — into the similar July 2014 crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 after it departed Amsterdam. That airplane was struck by a missile and crashed in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. The plane was travelling at the height of Russia’s military action against Ukraine.
“(Rutte) talked about the fact that he had multiple conversations with Russian authorities, including Vladimir Putin in the days following the Malaysian Airlines downing,” Trudeau related.
Rutte also told Trudeau of the need to keep families informed, especially in the early stages.
Trudeau said Canada is now embarking on “a difficult process of establishing the truth and the facts of what happened.”
The Iranians offered no immediate explanation for the disaster. Iranian officials initially blamed a technical malfunction for the crash, a notion initially backed by Ukrainian officials before they said they wouldn’t speculate amid an ongoing investigation.
The plane was also carrying 82 Iranians, 11 Ukrainian passengers and crew, 10 Swedes, four Afghans, three Germans and three Britons.
Trudeau noted that the majority of the victims were Iranian citizens “and this is something that binds us together in our grief.” But he emphasized: “Canadians want answers. I want answers. That means closure, transparency, accountability and justice. And this government will not rest until we get that.”
Canada has pressed Iran on the need for a credible investigation that gives international partners “on site” access to the crash, he added.
“The Iranians have indicated that they understand that,” Trudeau said.
The prime minister said Canadian expertise in investigating air disasters is ”world class. We have much to contribute and we have lost much in the loss of so many Canadian lives — so many families across this country grieving.
“We will be involved.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 9, 2020.
— with files from the Associated Press
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press