Iran’s probe into downing of airliner has major flaws – Canada report

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Iran is not conducting its probe into the downing of a civilian airliner in January properly and many questions remain unanswered, an independent Canadian report into the tragedy said on Tuesday.

The 79-page document is the latest expression of frustration from Western nations into how Tehran is handling the aftermath of a disaster that claimed 176 lives.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards say they accidentally shot down the Ukraine International Airlines plane shortly after take off, mistaking it for a missile when tensions with the United States were high. Many of the victims were Canadian citizens or permanent residents.

Former Canadian cabinet minister Ralph Goodale, charged with helping the victims’ families and examining how to deal with similar disasters in future, said “many of the key details of this horrific event” remain unknown.

“Iran bears responsibility for that because … it has not conducted its investigations (safety, criminal or otherwise) in a truly independent, objective and transparent manner, and answers to critical questions” are absent, he wrote in the report.

Last month, a governing panel at the United Nations’ aviation agency urged Iran to accelerate the investigation. Later in November, Ukraine said Iran was dragging its feet.

In the hours before the disaster, Iran had fired missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq. Five days earlier, Washington had killed a Revolutionary Guards commander with a drone strike in Iraq.

Goodale said Iran needed to explain how it had assessed the risks to civilian aircraft in its airspace and what it had told operators. He also said Tehran had to reveal why it had left the airspace open and also why exactly the Guards had decided to down the plane.

Canada, working with other nations who lost citizens, is pressing Iran for reparations while “seeking a full and candid accounting of what exactly happened” and a formal apology, Goodale said.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Alistair Bell)

U.S. embassy worker in Ukraine dies after suspected park assault

By Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets

KYIV (Reuters) – An American woman working at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv died after a suspected assault in a park near the mission, authorities said, and a search was underway for the possible perpetrator.

Ukrainian police said a passerby found the woman unconscious with a head injury, wearing running gear and headphones in the area of western Kyiv. She was taken to hospital, where she died.

Police added they were seeking a dark-haired man aged between 30-40, who wore dark shorts and a T-shirt, and may have been involved in beating the American woman.

In a statement, the U.S. embassy, which employs about 181 Americans and more than 560 locals, said it was working with Ukrainian authorities to determine what happened.

The woman’s identity and job were not given.

Interior Ministry spokesman Artem Shevchenko posted pictures of the scene on Facebook, showing the woman had been found by railway tracks next to a wooded area.

“The National Police of Ukraine is investigating her death as a deliberate murder … but an accidental death is not ruled out. The body was in sports clothes and wearing headphones,” he said in a statement.

The Ukrainian ambassador to Washington, Volodymyr Yelchenko, urged quick resolution and prosecution.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones, Timothy Heritage, Alexandra Hudson and Andrew Cawthorne)

Kremlin tells West not to rush to judge it on Navalny as sanctions talk starts

By Andrew Osborn and Madeline Chambers

MOSCOW/BERLIN (Reuters) – Russia said on Thursday the West should not rush to judge it over the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and that there were no grounds to accuse it of the crime, as talk in the West of punishing Moscow intensified.

The Kremlin was speaking a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Navalny had been poisoned with a Soviet-style Novichok nerve agent in an attempt to murder him and that she would consult NATO allies about how to respond.

Navalny, 44, is an outspoken opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin and has specialized in high-impact investigations into official corruption. He was airlifted to Germany last month after collapsing on a domestic Russian flight after drinking a cup of tea that his allies said was poisoned.

Berlin’s Charite hospital, which is treating Navalny, has said he remains in a serious condition in an intensive care unit connected to an artificial lung ventilator even though some of his symptoms are receding.

Novichok is the same substance that Britain said was used against a Russian double agent and his daughter in an attack in England in 2018. The deadly group of nerve agents was developed by the Soviet military in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow rejected any suggestion that Russia had been behind the attack on Navalny and warned other countries against jumping to conclusions without knowing the full facts.

“There are no grounds to accuse the Russian state. And we are not inclined to accept any accusations in this respect,” Peskov told reporters.

“Of course we would not want our partners in Germany and other European countries to hurry with their assessments.”

Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence agency, said Moscow could not rule out Western intelligence agencies had orchestrated the poisoning to stir up trouble, the RIA news agency reported.

Russian prosecutors have said they see no reason to launch a criminal investigation because they say they have found no sign a crime was committed, though pre-investigation checks are continuing.

Peskov said Russia was eager to know what had happened to Navalny, but couldn’t do so without receiving information from Germany about the tests that had led to Berlin’s conclusions about Novichok.

SANCTIONS PRESSURE

OPCW, the global chemical weapons agency, said the poisoning of any individual with a toxic nerve agent would be considered use of a banned chemical weapon.

The European Commission said the bloc could only slap new sanctions on Russia after an investigation revealed who was responsible for Navalny’s poisoning. Lithuania said it would ask EU leaders to discuss the poisoning at their next summit.

Merkel said that any German or European response would depend on whether Russia helped clear up the case.

After her strong statement on Wednesday, she is under pressure at home to reconsider the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will take gas from Russia to Germany.

“We must pursue hard politics, we must respond with the only language (Russian President Vladimir) Putin understands – that is gas sales,” Norbert Roettgen, head of Germany’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee, told German radio.

“If the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is completed now, it would be the maximum confirmation and encouragement for Putin to continue this kind of politics,” Roettgen, a member of Merkel’s conservatives, told German television separately.

Nord Stream 2 is set to double the capacity of the existing Nord Stream 1 pipeline in carrying gas directly from Russia to Germany. Led by Russian company Gazprom with Western partners, the project is more than 90% finished and due to operate from early 2021. This may complicate efforts to stop it.

It is fiercely opposed by Washington and has divided the European Union, with some countries warning it will undermine the traditional gas transit state, Ukraine, and increase the bloc’s reliance on Russia.

Peskov said the Kremlin regarded talk of trying to thwart Nord Stream 2 as being based on emotions. He said the project was a commercial one which benefited Russia, Germany and Europe.

“We don’t understand what the reason for any sanctions could be,” said Peskov.

(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Anton Kolodyazhnyy and Maxim Rodionov in Moscow and by Thomas Seythal and Vera Eckert in Berlin and by Gabriela Baczynska, John Chalmers, and Marine Strauss in Brussels, Andrius Sytas in Vilnius and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Editing by William Maclean)

Ukrainian FM says Iranians to discuss crash compensation in Ukraine

WARSAW (Reuters) – An Iranian delegation will visit Ukraine on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss compensation for a Ukrainian jet shot down by Iran on Jan. 8, the Ukrainian foreign minister said on Monday.

Iranian forces say they downed the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 jet on Jan. 8 after mistaking it for a missile amid heightened tensions with the United States. All 176 people on board – including 57 Canadians – were killed.

“Given the circumstance of what happened, there are all reasons to ask from Iran to pay the highest price for what it did,” Dmytro Kuleba, speaking in English, told a news conference during a visit to the Polish capital Warsaw.

Kuleba said Ukraine would represent all countries and groups affected during the talks.

“I cannot disclose final numbers of the compensation … numbers will be the result of the consultations,” he said.

The aircraft was shot down hours after Iran fired missiles at Iraqi air bases housing U.S. forces in retaliation for the U.S. drone killing of a senior Iranian commander.

The data extraction from the recovered black boxes is being carried out with an Iranian investigator and observed by Canadian, U.S., Swedish and British experts and representatives from UIA, Boeing and engine maker Safran.

(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska; Writing by Alan Charlish; Editing by Alison Williams and Philippa Fletcher)

Ukraine: Black box transcript confirms illegal interference with jet downed in Iran in January

KYIV (Reuters) – The transcript from the black boxes from a Ukrainian jet accidentally shot down by Iran on Jan. 8 confirm the fact of illegal interference with the plane, Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister wrote on Twitter on Friday.

Yevhenii Yenin said Kyiv was expecting an Iranian delegation to visit Ukraine next week for talks.

The Canadian Transportation Safety Board said on Thursday an international team examining the black boxes from the jet had completed a preliminary analysis of the data in France.

“Grateful to all partners who helped bring this moment closer. Black boxes from #PS752 were read out and deciphered successfully. The transcript confirmed the fact of illegal interference with the plane,” Yenin wrote on Twitter.

Iranian forces say they downed the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 jet after mistaking it for a missile at a time of high tensions with the United States. All 176 people on board were killed.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said this month that it was too soon to blame human error for the shooting down of the airliner and that many questions remained unanswered.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in February that Kyiv was not satisfied with the amount of compensation Iran had offered.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Voice data recovered from Ukraine jet downed by Iran

PARIS (Reuters) – Investigators examining the black boxes from the Ukrainian jet accidentally shot down by Iran have recovered its cockpit voice data, France’s BEA accident investigation bureau said.

Iranian forces say they brought down the Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) jet, a Boeing 737, on Jan. 8 after mistaking it for a missile amid heightened tensions with the United States. All 176 people aboard Flight PS752 were killed.

“CVR data – including the event itself – has been successfully downloaded,” the BEA said in a tweet on Monday, referring to the cockpit voice recorder from the downed jet.

The BEA did not elaborate on the content of the audio, which records the pilots’ verbal communications and other cockpit sounds. The release of any further information is a matter for Iranian authorities leading the investigation, a BEA spokesman said.

The data extraction, expected to take most of this week, is being carried out with an Iranian investigator and observed by Canadian, U.S., Swedish and British experts and representatives from UIA, Boeing and engine maker Safran.

Iran agreed in June to send the black boxes to the BEA for analysis, ending a long standoff with Canada, Ukraine and France over access to the data. Work began early on Monday at BEA headquarters outside Paris.

Many of the crash victims were Canadian citizens or permanent residents, or had Canada as their final destination.

An interim report by Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation last week blamed a misalignment of a radar system and lack of communication between the air defense operator and his commanders for the tragedy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Monday he welcomed Iran’s decision to hand over the black boxes, saying those responsible would be held accountable.

(Reporting by Laurence Frost; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Ukraine: it’s too early to blame human error for downing of passenger plane in Iran

KYIV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s foreign minister said on Tuesday it was soon to blame human error for the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger airliner near Tehran in January, challenging the findings of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation (CAO).

The CAO said in an interim report that the plane was accidentally downed, killing 176 people on board, because of a misalignment of a radar system and lack of communication between the air defense operator and his commanders.

But Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told an online briefing that many questions remained unanswered.

“I want to clearly emphasize: it is early to say that the plane was shot down as a result of human error, as the Iranian side claims,” he said. “We have many questions, and we need a large number of authoritative, unbiased, objective answers about what happened.”

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards shot down the Ukraine International Airlines flight with a ground-to-air missile on Jan. 8 shortly after the plane took off from Tehran. Iran later called it a “disastrous mistake” by forces who were on high alert during a confrontation with the United States.

Tehran last month said it would send the black box flight recorders from the downed airliner to France for analysis and that experts from the United States, Canada, France, Britain and Ukraine would take part in the decoding.

Kuleba said an Iranian delegation was due to arrive in Kiev later this month to discuss compensation. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in February Kiev was not satisfied with the size of compensation Iran had offered.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Robbers grab 100,000 surgical masks at gunpoint as Ukraine enters shutdown

By Matthias Williams and Pavel Polityuk

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukrainian shops, restaurants and transport shut down on Tuesday as the country tightened restrictions to contain the spread of the coronavirus, while police arrested five people suspected of trying to rob 100,000 surgical masks at gunpoint in Kiev.

The country has seven confirmed cases of the coronavirus so far, including one death. The government has encouraged people to stay at home wherever possible except to buy food and medicine, but has stopped short of introducing curfews.

Following a series of emergency steps introduced by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, parliament in a special session on Tuesday approved measures including fines and prison sentences for people who broke mandatory quarantine.

The economic fallout from the epidemic also continued to bite as the hryvnia currency slipped to 27 to the dollar for the first time since June 2019.

The central bank said it would not impose foreign currency restrictions and added it had $25 billion in reserves to continue market interventions.

Nevertheless it warned of an economic hit on Ukraine, which is still fighting a simmering conflict against Russian-backed forces in the eastern Donbass region that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.

In Lviv, a picturesque city of cobblestone streets in western Ukraine that is popular with tourists, restaurants and cafes closed and supermarket attendants wore masks and gloves while working at the tills.

“Of course, no one is happy about the restaurant shutdown,” said Mark Zarhin, the owner of a restaurant chain.

“It is like a perfect storm in Lviv. We face both ‘plague’ and war today. It is the worst. But it’s not the fact that we close the restaurants that is bad, but the fact that we don’t know for how long. We cannot predict anything.”

The nationwide shutdown will include the closure of the Chernobyl area, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in April 1986 that has since become a visitor attraction.

Kiev’s main airport was mostly empty after the government banned passenger flights to and from the country, and announced a shutdown of domestic air travel from Wednesday.

The authorities also announced the arrest of a group of people who, initially posing as members of the state security service, stole a stash of 100,000 surgical masks at gunpoint from a private seller who had stored them in his car.

“Instead of negotiating the purchase and sale conditions, the criminals attacked (the seller), took the masks and beat the man,” Kiev police chief Andriy Kryshchenko said. “Wearing police uniforms and threatening to use firearms, the criminals took possession of the whole batch of goods.”

(Additional reporting by Sergiy Karazy; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

After clashes, Ukraine blames disinformation campaign for spreading coronavirus panic

By Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk on Friday blamed an “information war” being waged on the country for spreading panic and mistrust over the coronavirus, a day after the arrival of evacuees from China sparked clashes outside a sanatorium.

Speaking to parliament, Honcharuk said misinformation was being spread from within and outside Ukraine but did not elaborate.

The authorities are trying to find the source of bogus emails sent this week on behalf of the health ministry erroneously declaring there had been confirmed coronavirus cases in Ukraine, when so far there have been none.

In another example, Honcharuk cited an incident of Russian officials asking a wagon-load of passengers traveling on a train from Kiev to Moscow to disembark after a Chinese woman with fever was found to be traveling on board.

The Ukrainian railway service said it has asked Russia for more information on the case.

Police detained 24 people in clashes with residents of a town in central Ukraine on Thursday, who feared they would be infected by Ukrainians who had been evacuated from China’s Hubei province to a sanatorium for a mandatory two week quarantine.

“The events that took place yesterday, in my opinion, are a consequence of, in particular, the information war that continues against our country, both from inside and out,” Honcharuk said.

Protesters in the town of Novi Sanzhary had clashed with police, burned tires and hurled projectiles at a convoy of buses carrying the evacuees to the medical facility.

The authorities had appealed for calm, saying the evacuees were screened to make sure they were not infected before being allowed to fly. Health Minister Zoriana Skaletska announced she would join those in quarantine.

“Our health minister has agreed to stay with the citizens in this medical institution,” Honcharuk said. “This way her example will prove that there is no danger to Ukrainian citizens.”

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the protests had been stoked by “political support” but did not say from where. He appealed to Ukrainians not to vilify those returning from China.

“We constantly say that Ukraine is (a part of) Europe,” he said. “Yesterday, frankly, in some episodes it seemed that we are the Europe of the Middle Ages, unfortunately. Let’s not forget that we are all people.”

(Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Ros Russell)

Clashes, jeers and burning tires greet coronavirus evacuees in Ukraine

By Matthias Williams

NOVI SANZHARY, Ukraine (Reuters) – Residents of a central Ukrainian town clashed with police, burned tires and hurled projectiles at a convoy of buses carrying evacuees from China’s Hubei province, quarantined in case of the coronavirus, to a sanatorium on Thursday.

Some protesters and police were lying wounded on the ground after the clashes. At least two buses had their windows smashed while the evacuees sat behind curtains inside.

Locals in Novi Sanzhary feared they could become infected despite the authorities repeatedly insisting there was no danger and a special appeal from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for calm.

Ukraine has no confirmed cases of the virus.

Tempers flared after a tense day-long standoff in which protesters blocked a bridge leading to the sanatorium where the evacuees will be held in quarantine for at least two weeks to make sure they are not carrying the virus.

Hundreds of helmeted police, police vans and an armored personnel carrier had been dispatched to keep order. Police were periodically shouted at with cries of “shame on you” as the town waited for the evacuees to arrive.

In addition to 45 Ukrainians, there were 27 citizens of Argentina on the plane that landed in Ukraine on Thursday, as well as citizens from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Costa Rica and other countries.

One Ukrainian woman refused to be evacuated at the last minute because she was not allowed by the Chinese authorities to take her dog, a Ukrainian embassy statement said.

The Ukrainian authorities say all passengers on board had been screened twice for the virus before being allowed to fly, but that was not enough to quell the protesters.

“Isn’t there any other place in Ukraine that can host 50 people, that is located in more or less remote villages or in far off areas where there is no threat to population?” said resident Yuriy Dzyubenko.

One protester was heard suggesting they should be kept at Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986. Another suggested taking them to parliament, while another said Zelenskiy should house them himself if he really believed there was no danger.

“This is what I am telling him, telling the president: “Take 10 people, then I will take two,” a man called Yuriy, who did not give his last name, said.

A weak healthcare system, corruption and mistrust of authority are widespread in Ukraine, which has recently also grappled with a measles epidemic amid a reluctance by some to vaccinate themselves and their children.

The protest had prompted Zelenskiy to issue a statement reassuring Ukrainians that there was no danger, that the authorities had done everything possible to make sure the virus would not spread to Ukraine.

“But there is another danger that I would like to mention. The danger of forgetting that we are all human and we are all Ukrainian,” he said.

In western Ukraine there were smaller protests by residents fearing the evacuees could be housed there instead.

China reported a drop in new cases in the province at the heart of the coronavirus outbreak on Thursday, though the death toll so far at over 2,000 has made it one of the biggest global health emergencies in recent decades.

(Reporting by Matthias Williams, Sergiy Karazy and Valentyn Ogirenko in Novi Sanzhary, Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets in Kiev; editing by Nick Macfie)