Iran starts returning crash victims to grieving Canadians

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Iran has begun repatriating remains of Canadian victims who were killed when its military shot down a civilian airliner amid a confrontation with the US earlier this month.

Canada’s foreign minister announced the return of the first crash victim on Tuesday. Further repatriations will follow after days of round-the-clock efforts to identify the remains of the passengers, a Canadian official told The National.

“More repatriations are in process,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.

The return of the remains is an important milestone in the aftermath of the shooting down of the Ukrainian International Airlines plane, as families of the victims, many of whom are Canadian citizens or permanent residents, grapple with their loss.

Iran has admitted to accidentally shooting down the aircraft with two missiles on January 8, shortly after it had taken off from Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran. All 176 people on board were killed, including 57 Canadian citizens and 29 permanent residents. Many of the citizens were dual nationals.

Mourners attend a vigil at the University of Toronto for the victims of a Ukrainian passenger jet which crashed in Iran. Reuters

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy lays flowers to commemorate victims of the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane crash, at a memorial in Boryspil International airport outside Kiev. Reuters

A candlelight vigil held at the Edmonton Legislature building in memory of the victims of a Ukrainian passenger plane that crashed in Iran. Reuters

A woman mourns outside the Alberta Legislature Building in Edmonton, Alberta, during a vigil for those killed after a Ukrainian passenger jet crashed. AP

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a news conference about flight PS752 from Tehran to Kiev that crashed shortly after takeoff, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Reuters

A candle is placed on a table bearing photos of some of the victims of a Ukraine International Airlines passenger flight that crashed after takeoff near Tehran, Iran. AP

Mourners place candles and photographs outside the Alberta Legislature Building in Edmonton, Alberta during a vigil for those killed after a Ukrainian passenger jet crashed. AP

Victims of the Ukraine crash in Iran, University of Alberta professors Mojgan Daneshmand and Pedram Mousavi, pose in an undated family photo in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Reuters

A victim of the Ukraine International Airlines crash in Iran, Dr Parisa Eghbalian poses with her husband Dr Hamed Esmaeilion at their dentistry practice in Aurora, Ontario, Canada. Reuters

A man places flowers at a memorial for the victims of the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 crash in the Iranian capital Tehran, at the Boryspil airport outside Kiev. AFP

Photographs of student victims of a Ukrainian passenger jet which crashed in Iran are seen during a vigil at University of Toronto. Reuters

Victims of the Ukraine International Airlines crash in Iran, Negar Borghei and Alvand Sadeghi pose in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Reuters

Attendees wipe away tears during a memorial service at Western University in London, Ontario on January 8, 2020 for the four graduate students who were killed in a plane crash in Iran. AFP

Members of Toronto's Iranian community attend a vigil in Toronto to mourn victims of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 that crashed after takeoff near Tehran, Iran. AP

Flowers and candles are placed in front of the portraits of the flight crew members of the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane that crashed in Iran, at a memorial at the Boryspil International airport outside Kiev. Reuters

The plane was shot down in the hours after the Iranian military fired a salvo of missiles at an Iraqi bases used by American forces, in retaliation to the killing of Qassem Suleimani, the top Iranian general who shaped his country’s regional policy, in an American drone strike. Iranian officials have said their defence systems were on heightened alert and mistook the plane for an enemy missile.

The flight from Tehran to Toronto via Kiev was popular with students and academics travelling between Iran and Canada. Due to sanctions, there are few direct flights from western capitals to Tehran, and other routes through , Istanbul, Doha and Vienna are much more expensive.

Ottawa severed diplomatic relations with Tehran in 2012 under then-prime minister Stephen Harper. But the Canadian official said Iran had organised visas for officials traveling to the country to assist with the crash investigation and the repatriation of victims.

“[The] priority is getting Canadians the remains of their family so they can bury [them]” the official said, as well as conducting a “robust” investigation.

Iranian officials initially said they would send the black boxes from the plane would be sent abroad for analysis, but then said this had not yet been decided. Although Iran admitted to shooting down the plane after three days of blanket denials, officials may be worried that dramatic details of the crew and passengers’ last moments between the two missile strikes could inflame anger at Tehran’s handling of the crisis.

The government’s admission sparked a wave of protests by Iranians against what many saw as a callous disregard for their lives.

Iran has repatriated the remains of 11 Ukrainian citizens, most of whom were flight crew. But the return of the Canadians is complicated by the fact that many are of Iranian origin, and Tehran does not recognize dual citizenship. That could mean that the wishes of family members in Iran trump those in Canada.

Once the repatriations are complete, Ottawa will likely seek some form of compensation from Iran for the victims. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced shortly after the crash that Canada would provide emergency relief funds to the families, but that it expected Iran to pay within weeks.

It is unclear whether the episode will prompt Mr Trudeau’s government to reconsider the severing of diplomatic relations, which has complicated efforts to provide consular services to victims’ families.

Canada’s Foreign Minister Francois-Phillippe Champagne discussed the crisis with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif during a rare meeting in Oman last Friday.

Updated: January 25, 2020 04:10 PM

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