KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A leaked recording of an exchange between an Iranian air-traffic controller and an Iranian pilot purports to show that authorities immediately knew 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’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy acknowledged the recording’s authenticity in a report aired by a Ukrainian television channel on 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 didn’t 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 an earlier American drone strike that killed the Guard’s top general, Qasem 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 reportedly 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 where the Guard’s Tor M-1 anti-aircraft missile was launched from. The controller says nothing has been reported to them, but the pilot remains insistent.
“It is the light of (a) 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, but 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 began saying they believed it had been shot down.
Iranian officials should have immediately had access to the air-traffic control recordings and Zelenskiy 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.”
Ukraine’s president repeated his demands to decode the plane’s flight recorders in Kyiv — something Iranian officials had promised last month but later backtracked on. On Monday, Ukrainian investigators were to travel to Tehran to participate in the decoding effort, but Zelenskiy insisted on bringing the so-called “black boxes” back to Kyiv.
“It is very important for us,” he said.
Iranian authorities, however, 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.
Reporting by Jon Gambrell; Associated Press writers Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.
Image: In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, honor guard carry a coffin of the one of the eleven Ukrainian victims of the Ukrainian 737-800 plane that crashed on the outskirts of Tehran, at Borispil international airport outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. An Ukrainian passenger jet carrying 176 people has crashed just minutes after taking off from the Iranian capital’s main airport on Jan. 8, 2020. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)