IRAN has refused to hand over the black box of a plane that crashed killing 176 people to international investigators.
The Kiev-bound Ukraine International Airlines jet came down shortly after taking off from Tehran Airport this morning, killing everyone on board.
The tragedy came just hours after Tehran fired at least 15 ballistic missiles at two US bases in Iraq, sparking fears it could have been shot down by mistake by jittery Iranian air defences.
And chilling images show pieces of the aircraft’s fuselage peppered with shrapnel holes – which some experts say points to a “shootdown” event.
The plane’s black box flight recorders have since been found, with one Iranian official saying they were damaged but their data could still be retrieved.
However, Iran is refusing to hand them over to international authorities, Reuters reports.
Iranian media said the Boeing 737 came down after “technical problems” and quoted an aviation chief who said no emergency had been declared.
Qassem Biniaz, a spokesman for Iran’s Road and Transportation authority, claimed one of its engines caught fire, causing the pilot to lose control.
But the aircraft was new in 2016 and was last checked just two days ago, the Ukrainian foreign ministry said.
BALL OF FLAMES
And jet engine maker CFM slammed claims the crash was caused by engine failure, saying it was too early to speculate on what was behind the tragedy.
Ukraine’s Tehran embassy initially blamed engine failure but later removed the statement, saying it could not officially comment on the cause until after a probe.
It also abruptly removed a line from its statement excluding a terrorist attack or missile strike.
Horrifying footage posted online shows the plane engulfed in flames as it went down.
The single-aisle, twin-engine jetliner had 167 passengers and nine crew members on board.
Among them were 63 Canadians, 10 Swedes, three Germans and three Brits, Ukraine’s foreign minister Vadym Prystaiko confirmed.
There were also 82 Iranians, 11 Ukrainians and four Afghans aboard, he added.
‘SHOT DOWN’ FEARS
The crash came just hours after Iran launched at least 15 missiles at two US bases housing American and British troops in Erbil and Al Asad.
And it happened hours after a 4.9-magnitude earthquake struck near to an Iranian nuclear site.
It is feared the plane may have been shot down by nervous Iranian defences in the aftermath of the missile attacks.
The strikes were codenamed Operation Martyr Soleimani – in retaliation for the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in a US air raid last week.
Aviation experts have now suggested a “shootdown” was the most likely explanation for the disaster.
The OPS group, an aviation risk monitoring group, said: “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.”
They highlighted pics of the crash site which they said “show obvious projectile holes in the fuselage and a wing section”.
Aviation expert Julian Bray told Sun Online: “This is catastrophic and not the type of crash that comes from an engine failing. There would have been nothing that anyone could do.
“It is very unusual, you would expect to see some wreckage but all we can see here is debris.”
But he added that it was too early to say what caused the crash, with some other experts agreeing.
The plane crash comes just days after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appeared to hint he was threatening another Lockerbie bombing.
And it bears chilling similarities to the 2014 downing of a Malaysia Airlines plane by Russian-backed separatists over Ukraine, after it was mistaken for an incoming missile.
The US Navy also killed 290 people in a similar incident after mistakenly shooting down an Iranian passenger jet in 1988.
A number of airlines have now suspended flights over Iranian and Iraqi airspace.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy today said he has instructed prosecutors to open criminal proceedings, and the plane’s black box flight recorders have reportedly been found.
But according to reports Iranian officials were refusing to hand it over to international authorities.
Flight data shows the plane reached an altitude of 2.4 km and then suddenly disappeared.
The three-year-old plane stopped sending data almost immediately after it took off, according to website FlightRadar24.
Rescuers rushed to the scene of the crash but could not get near the site because of the intensity of the flames.
Images show flaming wreckage strewn across the ground in the immediate aftermath of the crash.
And other harrowing pictures show victims being lined up in body bags at the scene and their possessions collected in a field nearby.