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Iran admits panicky missile operators shot down airliner with 176 aboard

A misaligned missile battery, miscommunication between troops and their commanders and a decision to fire without authorisation all led to Iran's Revolutionary Guard shooting down a Ukrainian jetliner in January, according to a new report.

Released late on Saturday by Iran's Civil Aviation Organisation, it comes months after the January 8 crash near Tehran that killed all 176 people on board.

Authorities had initially denied responsibility, only changing course days later after Western nations presented extensive evidence that Iran had shot down the plane.

The report may signal a new phase in the investigation into the crash as the aircraft's black box flight recorder is due to be sent to Paris, where international investigators will finally be able to examine it. 

Rescue workers search the scene where a Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr in January this year. A new report released this weekend says that a panicky missile operator shot down the Ukrainian Airlines jet near Tehran earlier this year, and apparently he did so without proper authorisation 

This image was shared online shortly after the Ukrainian Airlines crash in January this year, claiming to be taken in front of a house in Parand, Iran showing a piece of a missile

The incident happened the same night Iran launched a ballistic missile attack targeting US soldiers in Iraq, its response to the American drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on January 3.

At the time, Iranian troops were bracing for a US counterstrike and appear to have mistaken the plane for a missile.

The civil aviation report does not acknowledge that, only saying a change in the 'alertness level of Iran's air defence' allowed previously scheduled air traffic to resume.

The report detailed a series of moments when the taking down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 could have been avoided.

The report said the surface-to-air missile battery that targeted the Boeing 737-800 had been relocated and was not properly reoriented.

Iraqi women gather at the scene where Iran's Quds Force top commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed in a U.S. airstrike at Baghdad airport, Iraq February 13, 2020. The incident happened the same night Iran launched a ballistic missile attack targeting US soldiers in Iraq, its response to the American drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani (left on the billboard) in Baghdad on January 3

Those manning the missile battery could not communicate with their command centre, they misidentified the civilian flight as a threat and opened fire twice without getting approval from ranking officials, the report said.

'If each had not arisen, the aircraft would not have been targeted,' the report said.

Western intelligence officials and analysts believe Iran shot down the aircraft with a Russian-made Tor system, known to Nato as the SA-15.

In 2007, Iran took the delivery of 29 Tor M1 units from Russia under a contract worth an estimated 700 million dollars (£555 million).

The system is mounted on a tracked vehicle and carries a radar and a pack of eight missiles.

Witnesses said they heard 'two very loud noises' coming from Parandak garrison moments before the Ukrainian airline crashed in farmland just after take off from Imam Khomeini International Airport. A section of rocket was said to have been found in front of a home in the city of Parand

Search and rescue workers in January at the site after the Boeing 737 plane belonging to a Ukrainian airline that crashed near Imam Khomeini Airport in Iran

Pieces of debris are seen in January, lying at the crash site, in a picture released by an Iranian news agency, showing what appeared to be holes in the fuselage of the Boeing aircraft 

The report did not say why the Guard moved the air defence system, though the area near the airport is believed to be home to both regular military and bases of the paramilitary Guard.

The report notes the Ukrainian flight had done nothing out of the ordinary up until the missile launch, with its transponder and other data being broadcast.

'At the time of firing the first missile, the aircraft was flying at a normal altitude and trajectory,' the report said.

The plane had just taken off from Imam Khomeini International Airport when the first missile exploded, possibly damaging its radio equipment, the report said.

The second missile likely directly struck the aircraft, as videos that night show the plane exploding into a ball of fire before crashing into a playground and farmland on the outskirts of Tehran.

The report put the blame entirely on the crew of the missile battery.

In recent months, Iran has repeatedly delayed releasing the aircraft's so-called black box, which includes data and communications from the cockpit leading up to the incident.

The US, under international regulations, has a right to be part of the investigation as the plane involved was a Boeing.

Iran is expected to send the black box to France on July 20, when Ukrainian and French experts are expected to examine it.

The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials.

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