Iran investigation says Ukrainian airliner was on fire before crash

DUBAI, Jan 9 (Reuters) - A Ukrainian airliner was on fire immediately before it crashed southwest of Tehran killing all 176 on board, according to an initial report by Iranian investigators.

The Ukrainian International Airlines Boeing 737-800, flying to Kiev and carrying mostly Iranians and Iranian-Canadians, crashed shortly after taking off on Wednesday from Tehran's Imam Khomeini airport.

The report by Iran's civil aviation organization cited witnesses on the ground and in a passing aircraft flying at high altitude as saying the plane was on fire while still aloft.

The three-year-old airliner, which had its last scheduled maintenance on Monday, encountered a technical problem shortly after take-off and started to head toward a nearby airport before it crashed, the report said.

The technical problem was not specified in the report, which also said that there was no radio communication from the pilot and that the aircraft disappeared from radar at 8,000 feet (2,440 m).

It is so far not clear if any technical issue could be related to a mechanical fault or defective part.

The disaster puts a renewed spotlight on Boeing, which faces a safety crisis over a different type of 737, though the plane that crashed in Iran does not have the feature thought to have caused crashes of the grounded 737 MAX.

The Iranian report referred to the crash as an "accident."

Investigations into airliner crashes are complex, requiring regulators, experts and companies across several international jurisdictions to work together. Issuing an initial report within 24 hours is rare and it can take months to fully determine the cause.

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Rescue workers carry the body of a victim of an Ukrainian plane crash in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing all onboard. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Debris is seen from an Ukrainian plane which crashed as authorities work at the scene in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing all onboard. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Debris is seen from an Ukrainian plane which crashed as authorities work at the scene in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing all onboard. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Debris is seen from an Ukrainian plane which crashed as authorities work at the scene in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing all onboard. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Debris is seen from an Ukrainian plane which crashed as authorities work at the scene in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing all onboard. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Rescue workers search the scene where an Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing all onboard. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
A rescue worker searches the scene where a Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing all onboard. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
A police officer stands guard as debris is seen from an Ukrainian plane which crashed in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing all onboard. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
A rescue worker searches the scene where an Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing all onboard. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Rescue team work at the scene where an Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing all onboard. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Rescue workers carry the body of a victim of an Ukrainian plane crash among debris of the plane in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing all onboard. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Rescue workers carry the body of a victim of an Ukrainian plane crash in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing all onboard. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Flight crew members walk past the arrivals board with the cancelled flight from Tehran after Ukrainian 737-800 plane crashed on the outskirts of Tehran, Iran, at Borispil international airport outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing all onboard, Iranian state TV and officials in Ukraine said. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Debris is seen from an Ukrainian plane which crashed as rescue workers search the scene in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing all onboard. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
A man takes a photo of the arrivals board with the cancelled fight from Tehran after Ukrainian 737-800 plane crashed on the outskirts of Tehran, Iran, at Borispil international airport outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing all onboard, Iranian state TV and officials in Ukraine said. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Rescue workers search the scene where an Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane with more than 170 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing all onboard. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Rescue workers carry the body of a victim of an Ukrainian plane crash in Shahedshahr southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing all onboard. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
A relative of one of flight stewardesses, who were on the board a Ukrainian 737-800 plane that crashed on the outskirts of Tehran, Iran, reacts at Borispil international airport outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing all onboard, Iranian state TV and officials in Ukraine said. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Coordinator of the Ukrainian Ministry of foreign affairs operational crisis group Maksym Kovalenko speaks to media during a briefing in Kiev on January 8, 2020. - All passengers and crew on board the Ukrainian Boeing 737 plane that crashed shortly after take-off from Tehran on January 8, 2020 were killed, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said. (Photo by Genya SAVILOV / AFP) (Photo by GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images)
TEHRAN, IRAN - JANUARY 08: Bodies of passengers are being carried from the site by search and rescue team members after a Boeing 737 plane belonging to a Ukrainian airline crashed near Imam Khomeini Airport in Iran just after takeoff with 180 passengers on board in Tehran, Iran on January 08, 2020. All 167 passengers and nine crew members on an Ukrainian 737 plane that crashed near Iran's capital Tehran early Wednesday have died, according to a state official. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
TEHRAN, IRAN - JANUARY 08: Bodies of passengers are being carried from the site by search and rescue team members after a Boeing 737 plane belonging to a Ukrainian airline crashed near Imam Khomeini Airport in Iran just after takeoff with 180 passengers on board in Tehran, Iran on January 08, 2020. All 167 passengers and nine crew members on an Ukrainian 737 plane that crashed near Iran's capital Tehran early Wednesday have died, according to a state official. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A relative of passengers and crew members of the crashed Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 reacts at the Boryspil airport outside Kiev on January 8, 2020. - All passengers and crew on board the Ukrainian Boeing 737 plane that crashed shortly after take-off from Tehran on January 8, 2020 were killed, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said. (Photo by Sergei Supinsky / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)
TEHRAN, IRAN - JANUARY 08: Search and rescue works are conducted at site after a Boeing 737 plane belonging to a Ukrainian airline crashed near Imam Khomeini Airport in Iran just after takeoff with 180 passengers on board in Tehran, Iran on January 08, 2020. All 167 passengers and nine crew members on an Ukrainian 737 plane that crashed near Iran's capital Tehran early Wednesday have died, according to a state official. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
TEHRAN, IRAN - JANUARY 08: Search and rescue works are conducted at site after a Boeing 737 plane belonging to a Ukrainian airline crashed near Imam Khomeini Airport in Iran just after takeoff with 180 passengers on board in Tehran, Iran on January 08, 2020. All 167 passengers and nine crew members on an Ukrainian 737 plane that crashed near Iran's capital Tehran early Wednesday have died, according to a state official. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
TEHRAN, IRAN - JANUARY 08: Search and rescue works are conducted at site after a Boeing 737 plane belonging to a Ukrainian airline crashed near Imam Khomeini Airport in Iran just after takeoff with 180 passengers on board in Tehran, Iran on January 08, 2020. All 167 passengers and nine crew members on an Ukrainian 737 plane that crashed near Iran's capital Tehran early Wednesday have died, according to a state official. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
TEHRAN, IRAN - JANUARY 08: Passengers' belongings are seen as search and rescue works are conducted at site after a Boeing 737 plane belonging to a Ukrainian airline crashed near Imam Khomeini Airport in Iran just after takeoff with 180 passengers on board in Tehran, Iran on January 08, 2020. All 167 passengers and nine crew members on an Ukrainian 737 plane that crashed near Iran's capital Tehran early Wednesday have died, according to a state official. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
TEHRAN, IRAN - JANUARY 08: Passengers' belongings are seen as search and rescue works are conducted at site after a Boeing 737 plane belonging to a Ukrainian airline crashed near Imam Khomeini Airport in Iran just after takeoff with 180 passengers on board in Tehran, Iran on January 08, 2020. All 167 passengers and nine crew members on an Ukrainian 737 plane that crashed near Iran's capital Tehran early Wednesday have died, according to a state official. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Rescue teams work amidst debris after a Ukrainian plane carrying 176 passengers crashed near Imam Khomeini airport in the Iranian capital Tehran early in the morning on January 8, 2020, killing everyone on board. - All 176 people on board a Ukrainian passenger plane were killed when it crashed shortly after taking off from Tehran on January 8, Iranian state media reported. State news agency IRNA said 167 passengers and nine crew members were on board the aircraft operated by Ukraine International Airlines. (Photo by - / AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)
Rescue teams work amidst debris after a Ukrainian plane carrying 176 passengers crashed near Imam Khomeini airport in the Iranian capital Tehran early in the morning on January 8, 2020, killing everyone on board. - All 176 people on board a Ukrainian passenger plane were killed when it crashed shortly after taking off from Tehran on January 8, Iranian state media reported. State news agency IRNA said 167 passengers and nine crew members were on board the aircraft operated by Ukraine International Airlines. (Photo by - / AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)
TEHRAN, IRAN - JANUARY 08: Search and rescue works are conducted at site after a Boeing 737 plane belonging to a Ukrainian airline crashed near Imam Khomeini Airport in Iran just after takeoff with 180 passengers on board in Tehran, Iran on January 08, 2020. All 167 passengers and nine crew members on an Ukrainian 737 plane that crashed near Iran's capital Tehran early Wednesday have died, according to a state official. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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A Canadian security source told Reuters there was evidence one of the engines had overheated.

The crash happened hours after Iran launched missile attacks on U.S.-led forces in Iraq, leading some to speculate that the plane may have been hit.

The initial assessment of Western intelligence agencies was that the plane had suffered a technical malfunction and had not been brought down by a missile, five security sources - three Americans, one European and the Canadian - who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

In Kiev, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the government was considering several possible causes of the plane crash.

In a television statement, Zelenskiy asked people to refrain from speculation, conspiracy theories and hasty evaluations regarding the crash. He also declared Thursday a day of national mourning.

He said that he would speak by telephone with the Iranian president to step up cooperation into finding out the reason for the crash.

Countries recognized as participants in the investigation should nominate who they wish to be involved, the Iranian report said, while saying Ukrainian experts would take part.

As the country where the plane was designed and built, the United States is usually allowed to be accredited under a UN-administered convention but neither side has said whether US investigators will be dispatched to Iran.

Iran's aviation body could not be reached for comment to clarify their position.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have risen with the United States' killing of a top Iranian general on Friday and Tehran retaliated with a missile strike on U.S. targets in Iraq.

The Ukrainian airliner took off from the Tehran airport at 6:12 a.m. local time and was given permission to climb to 26,000 feet, the report said. It crashed six minutes later near the town of Sabashahr.

Bodies and body parts recovered from the site of the crash have been taken to the coroner's office for identification, the report said.

Smoldering debris, including shoes and clothes, were strewn across a field where the plane crashed on Wednesday. Rescue workers in face masks laid out scores of body bags.

Onboard were 146 Iranians, 10 Afghans, 11 Ukrainians, five Canadians and four Swedes, the report said, but said some may have held citizenship of other countries.

Ukrainian authorities have said those on board included 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, and 11 Ukrainians.

The Tehran-Toronto via Kiev route was a popular for Canadians of Iranian descent visiting Iran in the absence of direct flights.

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