By Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — An international dispute over the cause of the Tehran plane crash deepened on Friday even as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met the families of some of the dozens of Canadians killed in the crash and investigators scrambled to get into Iran.
The private conversations between Trudeau and the families of victims in Toronto were the latest attempt by the prime minister to reach out to those affected by Wednesday’s tragedy, which claimed the lives of 176 people, including 138 who were bound for Canada.
Trudeau previously attended a vigil on Parliament Hill to remember the victims Thursday, only hours after asserting that multiple intelligence sources had indicated the Ukraine International Airlines flight was brought down by an Iranian missile, possibly by accident.
Other vigils and memorials were being held across the country Friday and are planned throughout the weekend. There were also reports that Canada was sending a 10-person team to Iran to help the families of the deceased.
While the federal government did not speak to those reports, Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said representatives from Global Affairs Canada’s standing rapid deployment team and the Transportation Safety Board had arrived in Ankara, Turkey.
“To date, Iran has granted us two visas,” Champagne said on Twitter. “We are hoping the other visas will be approved soon so that we may begin to provide consular services, to help with the identification of victims and to participate in any investigation.”
Meanwhile, the dispute over exactly what happened to Flight 752 was heating up.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the highest-level American official to directly pin the blame on Iran, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australia’s Scott Morrison having made the same conclusions based on intelligence assessments.
“We do believe it is likely that that plane was shot down by an Iranian missile,” Pompeo said as he and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced new sanctions against Iran for having launched a salvo of missiles against two military bases in Iraq this week.
He said the U.S. will allow time for Canada to get resources on the ground in Iran and for the probe to wrap up, but added: “When we get the results of that investigation, I am confident that we and the world will take appropriate actions in response.”
Flight 752 went down shortly after Iran launched missile strikes against a military base in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil, where Canadian special-forces soldiers have been operating for the past five years.
The attack, which did not cause any casualties, was in response to the U.S. having killed Iranian Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
Iran denied any responsibility for the plane crash, blaming it on a fire in the Boeing 737-800’s engine even as it urged the U.S. to wait for the full investigation to conclude and to stop spreading lies and propaganda.
In a statement published by the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency, the Iranian government said: “We recommend the U.S. government to attend to the results of the investigations by the probe committee instead of scattering lies and engineering psychological warfare.”
Meanwhile, the head of Iran’s national aviation department, Ali Abedzadeh, told a news conference that “what is obvious for us, and what we can say with certainty, is that no missile hit the plane.” If the U.S. and Canada are sure, he added, they should “show their findings to world.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky echoed those calls, writing on Facebook in Ukrainian that while allegations the plane crashed because of a missile have “not been ruled out, as of today it is not confirmed.”
“We urge all international partners — especially the governments of the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom — to submit data and evidence relating to the disaster.”
While Western countries may hesitate to share information on such a strike because it comes from highly classified sources, videos verified by The Associated Press appear to show the final seconds of the ill-fated airliner, which had just taken off from Iran early Wednesday.
In one video, a fast-moving light can be seen through the trees as someone films from the ground. The light appears to be the burning plane, which plummets to the earth as a huge fireball illuminates the landscape.
Iran is also facing questions about whether it will conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the crash. Some of those questions revolved around allegations much of the debris at the crash scene had already been cleared and that the site had not been secured.
Iranian authorities say they have recovered the black box flight recorders from the doomed plane.
Yet Hassan Rezaeifar, the head of the Iranian investigation team, said recovering data from the recorders could take more than a month and that the entire investigation could stretch into next year.
Iran has invited Canada, Ukraine, France and Boeing to participate in the investigation, though it is unclear what role they will play.
Ukrainian investigators were given access Friday to the flight recorders that were recovered from the wreckage of the plane, which was bound for Kyiv, as well as access to recordings of the air-traffic controllers at the Tehran airport, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said.
Yet while investigators had also been to the crash site, “there are certain pieces that up until this time have not been found or gathered,” he added.
Transport Canada, meanwhile, said it had “issued a notice to Canadian air operators advising them not to enter the airspace of Iraq and Iran due to the potential risk of heightened military activity in the area.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2020.
— with files from The Associated Press.