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Oleksii Danilov, head of Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council, in his briefing room in Kyiv on Jan. 13, 2020.

ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

A senior Ukrainian security official says he believes Iran intentionally shot down an airliner full of passengers early last year, possibly with the intent of ending a cycle of military escalation with the United States.

All 167 passengers and nine crew, including 55 Canadian citizens, 30 permanent residents and 53 others who were travelling to Canada via Kyiv, were killed when Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was shot out of the sky on Jan. 8, 2020.

Oleksiy Danilov, who as secretary of the National Defence and Security Council oversaw the early stages of Ukraine’s own investigation into the disaster, said Iran’s refusal to allow international investigators unfettered access to the evidence has convinced him that Iran shot the plane down on purpose.

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“Iran does not allow anybody to examine this tragedy, and they postpone or slow down any investigations. The fact that they are investigating themselves is rather surprising, to put it politely,” he said in an interview at the NDSC headquarters in Kyiv.

“When they say this was accidental … I don’t buy that,” Mr. Danilov continued, “It was intentional. This was a conscious attack.”

The Ukrainian government has backed Mr. Danilov’s assertions.

But the Canadian government, one of Ukraine’s closest allies, is not embracing Kyiv’s position. It continues, though, to register frustration with the investigation and findings released by Iran’s civil aviation body, which blamed “human error” for the attack on Flight 752.

Trudeau, O’Toole demand accountability as 10 Iranian officials indicted for downing of Flight 752

The disaster took place the same night that Iran fired missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq, a retaliation for the assassination of a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, five days earlier.

The military crisis, which briefly looked capable of devolving into a regionwide war, rapidly calmed after the Ukraine Airlines flight was hit by two missiles shortly after taking off from Tehran’s airport.

“All is well!” then-U.S. president Donald Trump tweeted hours later, signalling an unexpected de-escalation after it was determined that no U.S. personnel had died in the Iranian attacks, and while the cause of the Flight 752 downing was still unknown.

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Iran later admitted that the plane had been shot down by its air-defence systems, which were on high alert that night for a possible U.S. counterattack. The final report of Iran’s investigation blamed human error for the incident. The report was rejected by the Canadian and Ukrainian governments as unsatisfactory when it was published last month. Ten people have reportedly been charged with crimes over their alleged roles.

Mr. Danilov said he had not shared his theory with Canadian authorities – but said he had directly challenged his Iranian counterpart while on an official visit to Tehran shortly after the disaster. He said his counterpart only assured him that his own political faction wasn’t involved in what had happened to Flight 752.

While Mr. Danilov was in Tehran last February, he met with Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. Mr. Shamkhani is seen as a relative moderate within his country’s theocratic-military regime.

“When I was in Tehran, talking to my counterpart, I asked him directly, ‘Why did you do this?’ He gave me a very honest reply – that they were not interested in shooting down this plane, but that Iran was a country where different groups of influence exist. There are at least three different military groups under three different commands, including the Revolutionary Guards, but not only them.”

Ukraine’s overall handling of the disaster is now led by the country’s foreign ministry, which is co-ordinating with Canada, as well as Afghanistan, Sweden and Britain, the other countries that lost citizens on the plane.

Asked whether Mr. Danilov’s statements were shared by the foreign ministry, deputy Foreign Minister Yevhen Yenin replied that Mr. Danilov, as secretary of the NDSC, was representing the entire government.

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“The Government of Ukraine demands a fair and objective investigation by Iran into the causes of the tragedy,” Mr. Yenin said in response to e-mailed questions. “We don’t believe the version of human error until we see the evidence.”

Mr. Yenin said Iran had refused to tell Ukraine the names and ranks of the 10 people Iran says have been charged in connection with the disaster – or even what they were charged with. “They never co-operate in a proper manner with Ukraine,” he said.

Ottawa, asked about Mr. Danilov’s assertions, declined to concur – or even comment on his words.

Instead, the government reiterated its frustration with how Iran has prevented an independent investigation. Tehran retained control of the probe though its own military was at the centre of the tragedy.

“Canada has repeatedly called for a comprehensive and transparent investigation into Flight PS752 in order to answer all the critical outstanding questions,” said Global Affairs spokesman Grantly Franklin.

“The families and loved ones of the victims deserve answers from Iran. We remain deeply concerned about the lack of convincing information and evidence, despite the publication of Iran’s investigation report.”

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He noted that Ottawa is preparing to release its own forensic probe into the matter, an investigation headed by former CSIS director Jeff Yaworski.

“Canada will soon release a report from our Forensic Examination and Assessment Team,” Mr. Franklin said.

“Only Iran has full access to the evidence, the crash site, witnesses, and those ultimately responsible,” Mr. Franklin said. “It is therefore incumbent upon Iran to provide a transparent and credible explanation of the downing and provide facts to back up its assertions.”

The RCMP has been aiding the Ukrainian prosecutor-general’s office with its criminal investigation into the attack. Earlier this year, Mr. Danilov said the case might be reclassified as a “terrorist” incident.

Mr. Danilov’s hypothesis is that Iran was looking to create a diversion on the night of Jan. 8, 2020, which would bring a strategically helpful pause to an escalating situation. He compares the case with that of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down by an anti-aircraft system over an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

“Since Jan. 8 of last year, the question has remained in my head: ‘Why do they do this?’ If you remember MH17, which the Russians shot down on the order of military authorities … active military actions came to a halt after this crash, because the whole world was focused on understanding what happened,” he said.

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“If you project this logic onto what happened on Jan. 8, there was the Soleimani assassination, after which total war was expected. After shooting down the plane and killing our citizens, among others, this [total war] went from first priority to 10th priority.”

Part of the reason that Mr. Danilov believes the attack was intentional is the fact that it was a Russian-made missile system that shot down a Ukrainian plane. The two countries have been in a state of undeclared war since 2014, and Mr. Danilov’s comments are taking place at a time of increasing tensions along the Russia-Ukraine border. Ukraine and Western governments accuse Russia of having amassed an invasion-sized force on its side of the frontier.

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