MOSCOW — In a solemn ceremony at an airport in Ukraine on Sunday, President Volodymyr Zelensky paid his respects to the 11 citizens from his country who were killed when Iran’s military mistakenly shot down a passenger jet in Tehran this month.
Zelensky has grappled with the diplomacy around the downing of the plane, Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. The missile strike put his government in the middle of a conflict between the United States and Iran, and he has walked a fine line as his country sought answers from Iran.
On the morning of the crash, Iranian air defenses had been on high alert after the country launched ballistic missiles at two US bases in Iraq in response to the Americans’ killing of a top Iranian general in Baghdad. Iran was preparing for retaliation to its missile strikes on the bases.
Although the Ukrainian government quickly concluded that a missile had downed the plane, killing all 176 people aboard, it refrained from public criticism of Iran until its investigative team on the ground had found irrefutable proof, including shrapnel holes in the plane’s fuselage.
US, Canadian, and British leaders blamed Iran for the tragedy before the Ukrainian government spoke out. But Ukrainian officials said that their patient approach had forced the Iranian government to finally acknowledge that it had shot down the plane in error, an embarrassing about-face after days of denials.
That approach may be tested again as Iran, which was accused of stalling the investigation, appeared to backtrack on sending the plane’s so-called black boxes to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.
A day after Hassan Rezaeifar, the Iranian official leading the investigation, was quoted by the semiofficial Tasnim News Agency as saying that the devices would be transferred to Ukraine, he said Sunday that he had no plans to turn over the flight data and cockpit voice recorders from the Boeing 737-800 plane.
Rezaeifar, a director at Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, previously said his organization lacked the capability to decipher the black boxes and would send them abroad for analysis. But Sunday he said that it would try to analyze them in Iran and that “no decision has been taken so far to send them to another country,” such as France or Ukraine.
Although the cause of the crash is no longer in dispute, the data and voice recorders may bring to light harrowing — and for Iran, politically damning — details of the final moments of the pilots and passengers.
For Zelensky, the return of the bodies of the Ukrainian victims, including nine crew members and two passengers, had also been a priority.
On the windy tarmac of Kyiv’s main airport Sunday, an honor guard stood at attention as pallbearers carried the victims’ flag-draped coffins from the cargo bay of an airplane to a convoy of waiting hearses.
Zelensky, his top aides, and Cabinet members stood silently as the coffins passed. Later, the procession continued through a crowd of Ukraine International Airlines employees. Pilots in flight uniforms doffed their hats and knelt, and flight attendants held bouquets of flowers.
The first coffins carried out were those of the three Ukrainian pilots — Aleksei Naumkin, Vladimir Gaponenko, and Sergei Khomenko — who died with their passengers.
After Iran initially hinted, without providing any evidence, that the pilots had flown erratically and therefore contributed to the crash by alarming air defense forces, Ukraine’s government pressed Iran to admit that the claim was false.
The pilots, in fact, had flown the usual departure route for Tehran’s airport.