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Iranians shot down airliner, Western leaders declare

WASHINGTON (AP) — It is “highly likely” that Iran shot down the civilian Ukrainian jetliner that crashed near Tehran late Tuesday, killing all 176 people on board, U.S., Canadian and British officials declared Thursday. They said the fiery missile strike could well have been a mistake amid rocket launches and high tension throughout the region.

The crash came just a few hours after Iran launched a ballistic attack against Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops in its violent confrontation with Washington over the U.S. drone strike that killed an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general. The airliner could have been mistaken for a threat, said four U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose country lost at least 63 citizens in the downing, said in Toronto: “We have intelligence from multiple sources including our allies and our own intelligence. The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.”

Likewise, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison offered similar statements. Morrison also said it appeared to be a mistake. “All of the intelligence as presented to us today does not suggest an intentional act,” he said.

The assessment that 176 people were killed as collateral damage in the Iranian-U.S. conflict cast a new pall over what had at first appeared to be a relatively calm aftermath following the U.S. military operation that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

It was not immediately clear how the U.S. and its allies would react. Despite efforts by Washington and Tehran to step back from the brink of possible war, the region remained on edge after the killing of the Iranian general and Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes. U.S. troops were on high-alert.

At the White House, President Donald Trump suggested he believed Iran was responsible for the shootdown and dismissed Iran’s initial claim that it was a mechanical issue with the plane.

“Somebody could have made a mistake on the other side.” Trump said, noting the plane was flying in a “pretty rough neighborhood.”

Late Thursday, the U.S. House approved a measure that aims to bar any further military action against Iran without congressional approval. However, the resolution approved by the Democratic-majority House is nonbinding and, at any rate, no similar measure could pass the Republican-controlled Senate.

As for the airliner shootdown, the U.S. officials wouldn’t say what intelligence they had that pointed to an Iranian missile. But they acknowledged the existence of satellites and other sensors in the region, as well as the likelihood of communication interceptions and other similar intelligence.

The New York Times posted a video Thursday it said it had verified showing the moment the apparent missile struck the plane over Iran. The video shows a fast-moving object rising before a fiery explosion. An object, apparently on fire, then continues in a different direction.

A preliminary Iranian investigative report released Thursday said that the airliner pilots never made a radio call for help and that the aircraft was trying to turn back for the airport when the burning plane went down.