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Confusion reigns on whether Iran has bulldozed Flight 752 crash site

Click to play video 'How social media helps shine light of truth on tragedy' How social media helps shine light of truth on tragedy
WATCH: With two competing narratives emerging about what caused the tragic crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, what is the truth? Mike Drolet reports on Bellingcat, a collective of investigative journalists, digging for the truth and using social media as a tool – Jan 10, 2020

Editor’s note: Global News previously reported, based on information from government officials, that 63 Canadians were killed in the Jan. 8 Ukraine International Airlines crash in Iran. On Friday, Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said that the number of crash victims who are Canadian citizens is now believed to be 57 due to additional information received. This story has been revised to reflect the latest figure provided by the Canadian government.

Questions surround new reports that Iran has cleared the wreckage of a deadly plane crash less than two days after the jet went down in Shahedshahr, Iran, near Tehran.

Images circulating on social media, which could not be independently verified by Global News, show bulldozers and loaders working within the debris where Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 crashed Wednesday morning, killing all 176 people aboard.

Click to play video 'Plane crash site near Tehran appears to be empty, wreckage removed' Plane crash site near Tehran appears to be empty, wreckage removed
Plane crash site near Tehran appears to be empty, wreckage removed – Jan 10, 2020

READ MORE: Here’s what we know about the victims who lived in Canada

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The wreckage has essentially been cleared from the field on the outskirts of Tehran, according to a report from CBS News. As of 9 a.m. local time, the area did not have security or cordons blocking it off, the report said.

The items taken from the site have been brought to another location, according to a tweet by CBS News reporter Elizabeth Palmer, where they are being examined by Ukrainian investigators.

Video from Russian video news aggregator Ruptly shows a cleared field on Friday, with markings in the ground suggesting large vehicles had driven through.

At least one loader is visible in several photos from the scene on the day of the crash, but it’s unclear how they were used at the time.

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Rescue workers search the scene where an Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Rescue workers search the scene where an Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi). AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

Iran’s ambassador to Britain denied the allegation that the site was clear, calling it “absolutely absurd” during an interview with Sky TV.

“Plane accidents are a very technical issue,” said Hamid Baeidinejad.

“I cannot judge, you cannot judge, reporters on the ground cannot judge. Nobody can judge. A foreign minister or a prime minister cannot judge on this issue.”

Click to play video 'Iran plane crash: Canada joins investigation amid reports evidence was removed from crash site' Iran plane crash: Canada joins investigation amid reports evidence was removed from crash site
Iran plane crash: Canada joins investigation amid reports evidence was removed from crash site – Jan 10, 2020

Iran has been firm on the theory that the plane crashed because of a mechanical issue. However, Canadian, American and British governments, citing sources in their intelligence services, all say the Boeing 737-800 was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.

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“We have intelligence from multiple sources including our allies and our own intelligence,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, pointing to a missile being the cause.

Baeidinejad discounted the claim Iranian missiles were to blame for downing the airliner and questioned the “validity” of video footage apparently showing it being struck.

He told Sky TV that Iran is “confident from our side that there has been no missile launched in that area.”

READ MORE: Accident or ‘act of war?’ Trudeau pressed on next steps for Canada, Iran after crash

It’s not uncommon for investigators to move pieces of the wreckage under certain circumstances, said David Soucie, a former U.S. Federal Aviation Administration accident inspector and CNN safety analyst.

He said the size of the scene, as well as the number of people roaming around it, could leave investigators with no choice.

The sensitivity of locating remains may also play a role.

“The ideal situation would be to not move anything, but when you’re faced with that many people in a difficult situation, managing the flow, it’s not uncommon to take things off,” he said.

“What I’m concerned about is the collective experience of the inspectors. They may not have done it properly. They may have lost critical information about determining the cause.”

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Click to play video 'Questions around Tehran’s transparency and cooperation with plane crash probe' Questions around Tehran’s transparency and cooperation with plane crash probe
Questions around Tehran’s transparency and cooperation with plane crash probe – Jan 9, 2020

Soucie said the first 48 hours of an investigation into a plane crash is “extremely critical.”

“The longer it goes, the more the site can be damaged, the more pieces can be taken or lost,” he said.

If it is, in fact, true that heavy machinery moved through the site less than 48 hours after the crash, it would be “devastating” to the investigation, according to Giancarlo Fiorella, a researcher with investigative website Bellingcat.

Fiorella said denial from Iranian officials that heavy machinery wasn’t at the site is “crazy” given the photos from the scene.

“As this progresses, we find more pieces of evidence that corroborate one version of what could have happened,” he said.

“But at a certain point, it becomes impossible to deny the information — for example, the bulldozer claim. [Iran says] there was no heavy machinery there. That’s an impossible claim to make at this moment.”
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READ MORE: An Iranian missile likely brought down a Ukrainian plane. Here’s how it could have happened

Whether the machinery was used to completely clear the site — therefore extracting the evidence from its origins — is still unclear. Global News has not been able to independently confirm this.

Fiorella, who has also been looking into the probability of a missile strike with Bellingcat, cautioned against jumping to conclusions — especially with claims derived on social media.

Based on his research so far, however, he said a missile strike is probable.

“These are the kinds of events that breed misinformation online. It’s a high-profile event,” he said.

“Suddenly you see lots of people that become experts in all kinds of fields.”

Click to play video 'U.S., Canadian intelligence indicate Iran shot down Ukrainian plane, killing 176 people' U.S., Canadian intelligence indicate Iran shot down Ukrainian plane, killing 176 people
U.S., Canadian intelligence indicate Iran shot down Ukrainian plane, killing 176 people – Jan 9, 2020

The U.S. ambassador to Germany was among those who commented on the allegations on social media Thursday.

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“No one knows how to clean up a site before the inspectors come better than the Iranians,” Richard Grenell tweeted.

Iran is heading the investigation into the deadly crash that killed 82 Iranians, at least 57 Canadians, and 11 Ukrainians.

Initially, Iran said it would not allow Boeing to take part in the probe, but later invited the company and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board to take part.

Ukrainian aviation investigators were invited to examine fragments of the plane late Thursday.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board, which is responsible for investigating air accidents, has also been invited to the site. The agency said Friday that it has accepted the invitation, but did not say how many investigators it would send.

Click to play video 'Champagne says Canada has received ‘a few visas’ from Iran' Champagne says Canada has received ‘a few visas’ from Iran
Champagne says Canada has received ‘a few visas’ from Iran – Jan 10, 2020

Under the Convention on International Civil Aviation, since Canadians died aboard Flight 752 in Tehran, Canada has the right to be part of the investigation under Iran’s lead.

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According to the convention, Canadian investigators have the right to visit the scene of the accident, examine the wreckage, and obtain witness statements and full access to all available evidence.

Trudeau has vowed to get to the bottom of the tragic crash, saying he will continue to push Iran for more access for Canadian experts to conduct an in-depth and credible investigation.

“It’s more important than ever that we know exactly how such a tragedy could have happened,” he said.

“The families of the victims, and all Canadians, want answers. I want answers. That means closure, transparency, accountability and justice.

“This government will not rest until we get that.”

— With files from Reuters and Global News’ Andrew Russell