Three Britons and 63 Canadians were among 177 people killed on a Ukrainian passenger plane which crashed near Tehran today, Ukraine has revealed, as officials in Iran asserted that it had suffered a technical failure rather than being shot down.
The Boeing 737 jet came down just minutes after take-off from Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran, sparking fresh alarm in the region hours after Iran launched a missile attack on US bases in Iraq.
There were no survivors among the 168 passengers and nine crew, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said.
The Ukrainian foreign ministry later revealed there were 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians and three Britons on flight PS752, along with 11 Ukrainians, 10 Swedes, four Afghans and four Germans.
Video footage appeared to show the plane already burning in the night sky before it crashed in a massive explosion.
It sparked speculation that the jet could have been shot down accidentally or collided with a military drone, with Middle East tensions spiralling after general Qassem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike.
The Ukrainian embassy in Tehran initially stated that the crash had been caused by an engine failure rather than terrorism or a missile attack, but later deleted that claim.
Iranian officials said the pilot had lost control of the Boeing jet after a fire struck one of the plane’s engines, but said the crew had not reported an emergency and did not say what caused the fire.
The Boeing plane was less than four years old and had been checked just two days earlier, with ‘one of our best crews’ manning the aircraft, a Ukrainian airline official said.
The French jet engine manufacturer CFM said any speculation about a technical failure was ‘premature’.
A series of airlines have announced they will stop flying over Iranian airspace with the cause of the crash yet to be fully established.
According to flight tracking data from FlightRadar24, the Boeing 737-800 reached an altitude of 7,925ft before tracking of the flight suddenly ended after three minutes.
The plane had been delayed from taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran by almost an hour.
The Boeing jet was new and had been checked two days ago, the Ukrainian airline said.
‘The plane was in working order,’ UIA company president Yevgeniy Dykhne told a briefing in Kyiv where he choked back tears.
‘It was one of our best planes with a wonderful crew.’
Just hours before the crash, the US Federal Aviation Administration had banned US airlines from flying over Iran, Iraq and the waters of the Persian Gulf due to the Middle East crisis.
Iranian media quoted an aviation official as saying the pilot of the airliner did not declare an emergency.
Television footage showed debris and smouldering engine parts strewn across a field, and rescue workers with face masks retrieving bodies of the victims.
After dawn had broken, photos published by Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency showed rescue officials in a farm field, with what appeared to be pieces of the aircraft laying nearby.
Rescue workers carried body bags and the passengers’ personal items – including cases, clothes, a Santa Claus doll, English-language books and a boxing glove – were lying amidst the debris.
‘The fire is so heavy that we cannot (do) any rescue… we have 22 ambulances, four bus ambulances and a helicopter at the site,’ Pirhossein Koulivand, head of Iran’s emergency services, told Iranian state television.
The Ukrainian embassy in Iran initially issued a statement saying: ‘According to preliminary data the plane crashed due to engine failure for technical reasons. As of now versions of terrorist attack or missile attack are ruled out.’
However, that claim had been deleted from the embassy website by Wednesday lunchtime, with an updated statement saying merely that the causes of the crash were under investigation.
Any previous comments about the cause were ‘not official’, the embassy said.
Qassem Biniaz, a spokesman for Iran’s Road and Transportation Ministry, said it appeared a fire struck one of the plane’s engines.
The pilot of the aircraft then lost control of the plane, sending it crashing into the ground, Biniaz said, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.
The crash deals a further blow to Boeing which was thrown into crisis by two plane crashes in October 2018 and March 2019 which killed 346 people.
An investigation team was at the site of the crash in southwestern outskirts of Tehran, Iran’s civil aviation spokesman Reza Jafarzadeh said.
‘After taking off from Imam Khomeini international airport it crashed between Parand and Shahriar,’ Jafarzadeh said.
‘An investigation team from the national aviation department was dispatched to the location after the news was announced.’
Iran’s English-language broadcaster Press TV cited the Imam Khomeini International Airport spokesman as saying the crash was caused by ‘technical difficulties’.
Critics have questioned the Iranian account, calling it the ‘fastest investigation in aviation history’ – and said the Boeing 737 has a largely outstanding safety record with no recent history of an engine failure of this kind.
Pictures at the scene appeared to show unexplained holes in the charred fuselage.
Iran says it has found the plane’s black boxes but will not give them to planemaker Boeing.
State media reported that the plane caught fire after crashing, but a video aired by the state broadcaster appeared to show the plane already on fire as it fell from the night sky.
Ali Abedzadeh, the head of Tehran’s civil aviation organisation, also said it was not clear which country Iran would send the box to so that its data could be analysed.
Another theory is that the plane could have have collided with a military drone before crashing.
Ilya Kusa, a Ukrainian international affairs expert, said amid the US-Iranian tensions ‘there were lots of them in the sky’ immediately after the rocket attacks.
Russian military pilot Vladimir Popov said: ‘It could have been an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, which are small in size and poorly visible on radars.
‘A plane in a collision could get significant damage and even catch fire in the air.’
Another Russian expert Alexander Romanov, an air safety specialist, told TV 360 he suspected engine problems possible caused by overloading.
‘Just a second before the main explosion, which occurred at a very low altitude, there was a flash, possibly an engine flash,’ he said.
Today a series of airlines including British Airways and Air France have responded to the crash by routing their flights away from Iranian airspace, while German carried Lufthansa said it was cancelling its daily route from Frankfurt to Tehran.
A British Airways spokeswoman declined to comment on exact routings, telling MailOnline: ‘We are in constant contact with our partners around the world to assess the security of our routes, and will always take action where appropriate.
‘We would never operate a flight unless it was safe to do so.’
Malaysia Airlines said that ‘due to recent events,’ its planes would avoid Iranian airspace, and Singapore Airlines also said that its flights to Europe would be rerouted to avoid Iran.
Ukraine International Airlines said it had indefinitely suspended flights to Tehran after the crash.
The rerouted flights were causing delays of up to an hour for passengers travelling over the Middle East.
The rescue group Red Crescent said teams were assisted by soldiers and firefighters in the effort to recover bodies.
‘Obviously it is impossible that passengers’ on flight PS-752 are alive, Red Crescent head Morteza Salimi told semi-official news agency ISNA.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky expressed condolences in a message from Oman.
‘Terrible news from the Middle East,’ he said. ‘This morning, after taking off from the Imam Khomeini International Airport (Tehran), a passenger plane of Ukraine International Airlines crashed near the airport.
‘According to preliminary data, all passengers and crew members were killed. Our embassy clarifies the information about the circumstances of the tragedy and the lists of casualties.
‘My sincere condolences to the families and friends of all passengers and crew members.’
Zelensky ordered the creation of a crisis team to handle the accident including top ministers and managed by the country’s national security agency.
The agency said it has information about 168 passengers who had checked in for the flight as well as nine crew members, putting the total estimated number of people on the plane at 177.
Breaking down the numbers, officials said there were 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians and three Britons on flight PS752, along with 11 Ukrainians, 10 Swedes, four Afghans and four Germans.
Canada is home to a large Ukrainian diaspora.
A UK Foreign Office spokesman said: ‘We are deeply saddened by the loss of life in the plane crash in Iran overnight.
‘We are urgently seeking confirmation about how many British nationals were on board and will do all we can to support any families affected.’