KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — A recording of an exchange between an Iranian air-traffic controller and an Iranian pilot appears to show that authorities knew immediately that a missile had downed a Ukrainian jetliner after takeoff from Tehran, killing all 176 people aboard, despite days of denials by the Islamic Republic.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged the recording’s authenticity in a report broadcast by a Ukrainian television channel Sunday night.
In Tehran on Monday, the head of the Iranian investigation team, Hassan Rezaeifar, acknowledged the recording was legitimate and said that it was handed over to Ukrainian officials.
After the Jan. 8 disaster, Iran’s civilian government maintained for days that it did not know the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, answerable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had shot down the aircraft. The downing of the jetliner came just hours after the Guard launched a ballistic missile attack on Iraqi bases housing U.S. forces in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike that assassinated the Guard’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, in Baghdad.
A transcript of the recording, published by Ukrainian 1+1 TV channel, contains a conversation in Farsi between an air-traffic controller and a pilot flying a Fokker 100 jet for Iran’s Aseman Airlines from Iran’s southern city of Shiraz to Tehran.
“A series of lights like … yes, it is missile, is there something?” the pilot calls out to the controller.
“No, how many miles? Where?” the controller asks.
The pilot responds that he saw the light by the Payam airport, near the launch site of the Guard’s Tor M-1 antiaircraft missile. The controller says nothing has been reported, but the pilot remains insistent.
“It is the light of missile,” the pilot says.
“Don’t you see anything anymore?” the controller asks.
“Dear engineer, it was an explosion. We saw a very big light there. I don’t really know what it was,” the pilot responds.
The controller then tries to contract the Ukrainian jetliner, unsuccessfully.
Publicly accessible flight-tracking radar information suggests the Aseman Airlines aircraft, flight No. 3768, was close enough to Tehran to see the blast.
Iranian civil aviation authorities for days insisted it wasn’t a missile that brought down the plane, even after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. officials said they believed it had been shot down.
Iranian officials should have had immediate access to the air-traffic control recordings and Zelensky told 1+1 that “the recording, indeed, shows that the Iranian side knew from the start that our plane was shot down by a missile; they were aware of this at the moment of the shooting.”
Zelensky repeated his demands to decode the plane’s flight recorders in Kiev — something Iranian officials had promised in January, until they reneged. On Monday, Ukrainian investigators were to travel to Tehran to participate in the decoding effort, but Zelensky insisted on bringing the black boxes back to Kiev.
“It is very important for us,” he said.
Iranian authorities condemned the publication of the recording as “unprofessional,” saying it was part of a confidential report.
“This action by the Ukrainians makes us not want to give them any more evidence,” said Rezaifar, the head of the Iranian investigators, according to a report by the semiofficial Mehr news agency.