Flight PS752 shot down after being 'misidentified' as 'hostile target,' Iran's final report says

·6 min read
In this Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020 photo, rescue workers search the area where a Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran. Iran's final report into the cause of the incident concludes an Iranian military unit
In this Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020 photo, rescue workers search the area where a Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran. Iran's final report into the cause of the incident concludes an Iranian military unit

Canadian officials and victims' family members are casting doubt on Iran's investigation into the destruction of Ukrainian Airlines Flight PS752 after it concluded the aircraft was shot down due to human error.

In a long-awaited final report into the cause of the incident, released today, safety investigators from Iran's civil aviation authority said the Boeing 737-800 passenger plane was shot down accidentally in January 2020 after being "misidentified" by an air defence unit as a "hostile target."

All 176 passengers and crew members — including 138 people with ties to Canada — died in the crash.

"The ... aircraft was misidentified by the air defence unit in the suburbs of Tehran and, consequently, two missiles were launched toward it," the report reads. "The operation of the aircraft had not imposed any error to the air defence unit.

"The interference of military activity with civil aviation operations resulted in an accident."

The report, conducted by Iran's Aircraft Accident Investigation Board, supports the Iranian government's claim that it was human error and not a deliberate military attack that led to Flight PS752's destruction. It also leaves unanswered many questions raised by the Canadian government and the families of the victims.

Hamed Esmaeilion, whose wife and daughter both died on board Flight PS752, said Iran's report answers none of the questions posed by the victims' families.

For one thing, he said, the report doesn't explain why civilian planes were still taking off when the country was experiencing heightened military tensions with the U.S.

"We waited 15 months for nothing," said Esmaeilion, who is now a spokesperson for an association representing victims' families.

"Because we are looking for answers and nobody answers our questions, we are in darkness."

Canada's Transportation Safety Board said it has received the final report and senior officials will respond at a press conference Thursday morning.

Iran denied shooting down the aircraft for three days after the crash, but eventually admitted a unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps "mistakenly" shot down the jet.

The Iranian military was on high alert at the time because of the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani by a U.S. drone strike five days earlier, and a subsequent retaliatory attack by Iran on Iraqi bases where U.S. forces were stationed.

Hamed Esmaeilion, left, is  a spokesperson for an association representing victims' families in Canada. His wife Parisa Eghbalian and daughter Reera Esmaeilion, pictured here, died on Flight PS752.
Hamed Esmaeilion, left, is a spokesperson for an association representing victims' families in Canada. His wife Parisa Eghbalian and daughter Reera Esmaeilion, pictured here, died on Flight PS752. (Submitted by Hamed Esmaeilion)

Chain of errors

Investigators identified what they claimed was a series of mistakes that led the air defence unit to fire two surface-to-air missiles at the passenger jet.

First, said the report, the unit failed to re-calibrate its targeting system after a "tactical relocation," which caused the operator of the missile system to conclude PS752 was flying toward Tehran at a low altitude — when in fact it was flying to the west, away from the airport.

Second, when the operator attempted to alert the command centre to the apparent incoming threat, "the message was never relayed," the report states. It does not explain why.

Finally, the report says the operator fired at what he thought was a hostile target without receiving the go-ahead from the command centre — a violation of procedure.

WATCH: UN expert says Iran broke international law after downing of Flight 752

The first warhead exploded near the aircraft, hurling more than 2,500 pieces of shrapnel toward it at nearly 6,500 km/h — more than five times the speed of sound — damaging the plane and aircraft systems but leaving its structural integrity intact, said the report.

"(T)he three cockpit crew members were all still alive. They appeared to have sustained no physical injuries."

The second missile "likely" affected the aircraft, but the plane plummeted to the ground regardless, crashing near the airport and exploding on impact six minutes after takeoff and three minutes after the first missile detonated, the report said.

Canadian officials not convinced

Ralph Goodale, who was appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a special adviser on the destruction of Flight PS752, said that while the report contains a number of facts and details, it avoids answering critical questions.

"That is the storyline that they have had right from the very beginning," Goodale said in an interview. "And once again, they repeat that storyline, but without any evidence or facts or proof to verify that this is the way it happened."

Goodale singled out a section in the report that describes a risk assessment conducted by Iranian officials ahead of the military launching missiles at Iraq earlier that morning.

"Obviously, their risk assessment was a catastrophic failure, resulting in a wanton disregard for human life," said Goodale.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau and Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said in a joint statement that their preliminary review found the report to be lacking.

"It is clear we still do not have answers as to why Iran did not put in place the necessary measures, such as a full closure of their airspace, to prevent such a tragedy," they said.

"We reiterate Canada's commitment to seeking answers and justice by holding Iran accountable and by ensuring it takes full responsibility and makes full reparations for the harm caused to the families and loved ones of the victims of Flight PS752."

The ministers said the government would soon make public the results of its own investigation.

In a video posted to Facebook, Ukraine's foreign minister also blasted Iran's investigation as incomplete and biased.

"What we saw published today is just a cynical attempt to hide true causes of the downing of our passenger aircraft," Dmytro Kuleba said, according to an English translation.

"This is not a report but a collection of manipulations aimed not at establishing the truth, but acquitting the Islamic Republic of Iran."

Kuleba said the investigation violated standards set out under international law and by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

The International Coordination and Response Group is made up of ministers from nations that lost citizens in the crash: Canada, Ukraine, Sweden, Afghanistan and the United Kingdom. The group said in a media statement those countries would review the report and reiterated their commitment to accountability and transparency for the victims' families.

In December, Iran pledged to pay $150,000 to each family that lost someone on the plane. Goodale rejected the offer. He said Iran doesn't have the right to offer compensation to victims' families unilaterally and that the final amount will be determined through negotiations between Iran, Canada and the four other countries whose citizens were killed on the plane.

The release of Iran's final report comes just weeks after two United Nations experts accused Iranian authorities of committing multiple violations of human rights and international law in the lead-up to, and aftermath of, the destruction of Flight PS752.

WATCH | Transport minister on Iran's report:

Alghabra told CBC's Power & Politics that Ottawa rejects the conclusions of the report, and he criticized it for detailing what happened without explaining why.

"This report unfortunately is incomplete, it misses the point, there are a lot of unanswered questions that remain unanswered and it is frustrating for the families, and it's frustrating for all of us," he said.

Alghabra criticized the report for failing to explain how and why the airspace remained open, why the plane was allowed to take off and why the Iranian military shot it down. He said the federal government would be issuing a formal response to the report soon.