Canadians were among the 176 people killed when a Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 crashed after taking off from Teheran’s main airport. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Ukrainian airlines crash near Tehran kills 63 Canadians; 176 dead

SHAHEDSHAHR, Iran — Dozens of Canadians were among the 176 people killed when a Ukrainian passenger plane crashed minutes after takeoff from Teheran’s main airport, Ukraine’s government said on Wednesday.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800, which was en route to Kyiv when it went down in a field, was carrying 63 Canadians, 82 Iranians, 11 Ukrainian passengers and crew, 10 Swedes, four Afghans, three Germans and three Britons. There were no survivors, authorities said.

Ukrainian authorities initially said it appeared mechanical failure was to blame, but later walked that back, saying nothing had been ruled out.

Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said Wednesday he had been in touch with the government of Ukraine about the tragic news.

“Our hearts are with the loved ones of the victims, including many Canadians,” he tweeted.

Global Affairs Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the crash, which comes amid increased tension in the region following the American assassination of a top Iranian general near Baghdad and retaliatory missile attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq.

However, the agency warned against any non-essential travel to Iran “due to the volatile security situation, the regional threat of terrorism and the risk of arbitrary detention.” The agency said Canadians, particularly those holding dual Canadian-Iranian citizenship, were at risk of being arbitrarily questioned, arrested and detained.

“Iran does not recognize dual nationality and Canada will not be granted consular access to dual Canadian-Iranian citizens,” Global Affairs said. “Canadian-Iranian dual citizens should carefully consider the risks of travelling to Iran.”

Payman Paseyan, a member of the Iranian-Canadian community in Edmonton, said multiple people from the city were on the flight and he knew many of the passengers. Members of the community had found out about the crash while being glued to the news after Tuesday’s missile attacks in Iraq.

“Many were expecting their friends and families members to come back … (and) were well aware what flight they were on,” said Paseyan, a former president of the Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton.

One person who knew a passenger on the plane had called him for more information.

“He called and said, ‘Hey, is there any chance there’s a second flight to Kyiv, this is a mistake? This can’t be real.’ He’s devastated.”

Paseyan said the news is difficult for an Iranian community that is already concerned about ongoing aggression between Iran and the United States.

“They were worried about their family members that were in Iran, and now this has compounded that with worry for the community,” he said.

The plane, fully loaded with fuel for its 2,300-kilometre flight, slammed into farmland near the town of Shahedshahr on the outskirts of Tehran. Videos show fires lighting up the darkened fields before dawn and rows of body bags laid out along the side of a road.

Airline officials said most of the passengers had planned to transit through Kyiv to other destinations.

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 2,400 metres in the air, data from the flight-tracking website FlightRadar24 indicates.

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

Resident Din Mohammad Qassemi said he had been watching the news about the Iranian missile attacks 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 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.”

AP journalists at the crash site saw a wide field of field of debris, with the casualties lying among shattered pieces of the aircraft. Their possessions — a child’s cartoon-covered electric toothbrush, a stuffed animal, luggage and electronics — stretched everywhere.

It was one of the worst aviation disasters involving Canadians.

In 1985 a bomb exploded and killed 329 people aboard an Air India flight. Air India Flight 182 from Montreal to New Delhi exploded over the Atlantic Ocean near Great Britain on June 23, 1985. Most of the victims were Canadian.

— With files from The Associated Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8, 2020.

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