Iran crash likely a 'shootdown event', aviation experts say
Images of the fuselage show "obvious projectile holes" that could have been caused by missile fragments, OPSGROUP said in a risk assessment report published on Wednesday.
The report advises flight operators to consider the crash a "shootdown event" similar to the 2014 downing of MH17 over Ukraine.
Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky earlier warned against speculation over the cause of the crash, which killed all passengers and crew - 177 in total, according to Ukraine's national security agency - on board the flight.
An initial statement by the Ukranian embassy in Tehran ruled out an attack on the aircraft, stating in line with initial Iranian reports that the crash had been cause by an "engine failure".
It was later deleted and replaced by a retraction that said any statements about the cause of the crash were "not official" unless they came from an investigative commission set up by Kiev.
Alongside the abrupt retraction, the online circulation of an unverified video claiming to show the Boeing 737 jet coming to a flaming crash has fuelled speculation that the Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) flight was targeted by an anti-aircraft missile.
The crash came as tensions between Tehran and Washington ramp up over the targeted killing of top Iranian commmander Qasem Soleimani last week. Iran launched 22 missiles against two Iraqi bases hosting US forces just hours before the crash.
Iranian rescue workers recovered both black boxes of the crashed plane, but the Islamic Republic's aviation authority has said it would not hand them over to the US.
In the event of a plane crash, black box data is usually shared with the manufacturer of the aircraft in order to determine whether the crash resulted from a manfacturer fault.
"We will not give the black boxes to the manufacturer [Boeing] and the Americans," Iran Civil Aviation Organisation head Ali Abedzadeh said, quoted by Mehr news agency.
"It's not yet clear which country the black box will go to for the investigation," he added.
Based on global aviation rules, it is the right of the country where plane crashes occur to carry out an investigation, Abedzadeh said.
"This accident will be investigated by Iran's aviation organisation but the Ukrainians can also be present during the incident's investigation," he added.
Under the rules of the International Civil Aviation Organization, of which Iran, Ukraine and the United States are all members, air crash investigations are led by the country where the accident occurred.
However, according to aviation experts, the countries that are capable of analysing black boxes are few - notably Britain, France, Germany and the United States.
France's Accident Investigation Bureau (BEA), which handles air crash investigations, said it had not received any request for help from the Iranian authorities after Wednesday's crash.
Evidence of a 'shootdown event'
Amid speculation over the cause of the crash, aviation intelligence group OPSGROUP has said the UIA jet crash was likely a "shootdown event".
The group's analysis is likely to find critics, however, as by its own admission it relies upon conjecture.
"Purely from the perspective of making a risk assessment for operations to Tehran, and Iran in general, however, we would recommend the starting assumption to be that this was a shootdown event, similar to MH17 - until there is clear evidence to the contrary," OPSGROUP said in a report.
Images of the fuselage show "obvious projectile holes", it added.
"Whether that projectile was an engine part, or a missile fragment is still conjecture," OPSGROUP said, advising aircraft operators to "err on the side of caution" and avoid operating in Iran.
The group of aviation intelligence experts added that the cause of the crash may not be clarified beyond reasonable doubt any time soon "given political circumstances".
Open source investigators have cast doubt on those same images of the fuselage and a wing section of the crashed UIA airliner reportedly showing projectile damage.
Elliot Higgins, founder of open source investigative journalism collective Bellingcat, cautioned that his team had seen "nothing yet" to "indicate it was anything but an accident".
Some analysts have pointed to apparent holes in the fuselage as shrapnel damage, Higgins added.
"We saw the same thing happen with MH17, mud and rocks in low resolution photographs being wrongly identified as shrapnel damage, led some people to make early, faulty, conclusions about the wreckage, and the same is happening here," he said in a tweet.
Speaking to The Independent, Philip Baum, the editor of Aviation Security International magazine, said it was too early to speculate about the crash.
"Given the fact it was in Iran and the timing, and if you associate two states with shootdowns, as victims, then Ukraine springs to mind purely because of MH17," and Iran, due to the 1988 US shooting down of an Iranian civilian plane, he said.
"I just think there is nothing to indicate that it was a shootdown, and if it was shot down then by whom?"