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Oleksii Danilov, head of Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council, with a photo of debris from Flight 752, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Jan. 13, 2020.

ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

Ukraine’s top security official said his country’s investigators believe a Russian-made Tor missile shot down a Ukrainian airliner over Iran last week, but said the Kremlin is already trying to undermine that version with misinformation.

Oleksii Danilov said a Ukrainian team of 57 experts, which has been on the ground in Tehran since the day after the Jan. 8 disaster, is focused on the theory that it was a Tor anti-aircraft system that destroyed the plane less than four minutes after it took off from Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran, killing all 176 people on board.

The Tor M1 is a Russian-made mobile surface-to-air missile launcher that was designed to counter fast, low flying objects such as cruise missiles. Russia sold 29 of the Tor M1 batteries to Iran under a 2005 contract worth a reported US$700-million. Each is equipped with eight missiles, plus radars and fire-control systems intended to separate civilian targets from potential military threats.

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After days of denials, Iran acknowledged on Friday that it had made a “disastrous mistake” in shooting down Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752, and said its anti-aircraft officers mistook the commercial airliner for a cruise missile.

The type of missile system has not been officially named, but photos of the crash site show parts of what analysts say looks to be a Tor missile amid the debris.

“We think it was a Tor,” Mr. Danilov, head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail in Kyiv. “We think the Russians will try and negotiate and convince Iran to say that it was another type of rocket. We detect this effort already – to say that the rocket was produced in Iran.”

Asked to describe the Russian effort, Mr. Danilov pointed to the strong diplomatic relationship between Moscow and Tehran, as well as reports in Russia’s state-controlled media. A Saturday article in the popular Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid called the Tor missile theory “insane” and accused the Ukrainian government of trying to find a way to blame Russia for the disaster.

“If we are talking about misinformation, the Russians are the most experienced,” Mr. Danilov said.

Russia and Ukraine have been in a state of undeclared war since 2014, when Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula and began giving support to armed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The conflict in the east led to another civilian air disaster in 2014, when a missile destroyed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing all 298 people on board.

An international investigation headed by the Netherlands concluded the aircraft was shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft system that fired from separatist controlled territory in eastern Ukraine.

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Moscow, however, has always denied involvement in the disaster and has promoted a series of sometimes bizarre alternative theories for what happened.

“Russia was not only denying its own role in [Flight 17], but was also blaming Ukraine and trying to produce as many versions as possible – to confuse and to make sure that nobody understands anything,” said Yevhen Fedchenko, director of the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kyiv.

He said he sees something similar happening already with Flight 752.

Eliot Higgins, founder of the Bellingcat website that specializes in open-source investigations, said the available evidence about Flight 752 points toward a Tor missile having destroyed the plane.

“We have two photos of Tor missile debris, which while not 100 per cent verified are consistent with the local areas, and with what the Iranians use in that area,” he said, adding there were also videos online that show a missile headed in the direction of the Flight 752’s flight path just before the plane exploded.

The plane’s black boxes, which record flight data and cockpit conversations, are expected to contain other crucial information.

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Mr. Danilov said Ukraine was pressing Iran to allow the black boxes to be brought to Kyiv for analysis.

“It is very important for the investigation,” Mr. Danilov said, adding it was not yet certain whether Iran would allow the black boxes to be moved to another country. “We would like to [analyze the black boxes in Ukraine], but it can’t be decided only by one side – Iran. We’ve asked them many times.”

He also said Ukraine is pressing Iran to identify victims’ remains as quickly as possible.

Mr. Danilov said the grim identification work was made even more complicated by the fact the plane was thoroughly destroyed by the missile, which he said struck right at the cockpit.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko announced on Monday during an official visit to Singapore that foreign ministers from the five countries that lost citizens on the plane – Canada, Sweden, Afghanistan and Britain – would meet Thursday in London.

He said everyone involved in the catastrophe had to be held to account.

“What we don’t want is somebody like the soldier, the very low level, to be pointed and told that this is the guy who pushed the button. ... This is the Iranian government’s responsibility,” he said. “We have to dig out who gave the order, who pushed the button. Everything. ... All these people should be punished.”

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New footage shows Ukrainian experts sorting and examining debris from the crash of Flight 752 in Iran.
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