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Iranians shot down airliner, Western leaders declare

WASHINGTON — It is “highly likely” that Iran shot down the civilian Ukrainian jetliner that crashed near Tehran late Tuesday, killing all 176 people on board, U.S., Canadian and British officials declared Thursday. They said the missile strike could well have been a mistake amid rocket launches and high tension throughout the region.

The crash came just a few hours after Iran launched a ballistic attack against Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops in its violent confrontation with Washington over the U.S. drone strike that killed an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general. The airliner could have been mistaken for a threat, said four U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose country lost at least 63 citizens in the downing, said in Ottawa: “We have intelligence from multiple sources including our allies and our own intelligence. The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.”

Likewise, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “There is now a body of information that the flight was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.”

The assessment that 176 people were killed as collateral damage in the Iranian-U.S. conflict cast a new pall over what had at first appeared to be a relatively calm aftermath following the U.S. military operation that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

It was not immediately clear how the U.S. and its allies would react. Despite efforts by Washington and Tehran to step back from the brink of possible war, the region remained on edge after the killing of the Iranian general and Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes. U.S. troops were on high-alert.

At the White House, President Donald Trump suggested he believed Iran was responsible for the shootdown and dismissed Iran’s initial claim that it was a mechanical issue with the plane.

“Somebody could have made a mistake on the other side.” Trump said, noting the plane was flying in a “pretty rough neighborhood.”

Late Thursday, the U.S. House approved a measure that aims to bar any further military action against Iran without congressional approval. However, the resolution approved by the Democratic-majority House is nonbinding and, at any rate, no similar measure could pass the Republican-controlled Senate.

As for the airliner shootdown, the U.S. officials wouldn’t say what intelligence they had that pointed to an Iranian missile. But they acknowledged the existence of satellites and other sensors in the region, as well as the likelihood of communication interceptions and other similar intelligence.

The New York Times posted a video Thursday it said it had verified showing the moment the apparent missile struck the plane over Iran. The video shows a fast-moving object rising before a fiery explosion. An object, apparently on fire, then continues in a different direction.

A preliminary Iranian investigative report released Thursday said that the airliner pilots never made a radio call for help and that the aircraft was trying to turn back for the airport when the burning plane went down.

The Iranian report suggested that a sudden emergency struck the Boeing 737 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines late Tuesday, when it crashed, just minutes after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran.

Investigators from Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization offered no immediate explanation for the disaster, however. Iranian officials initially blamed a technical malfunction for the crash, something backed by Ukrainian officials before they said they wouldn’t speculate amid an ongoing investigation.

Before the U.S. assessment, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency quoted Hasan Rezaeifa, the head of the of civil aviation accident investigation commission, claiming that “the topics of rocket, missile or anti-aircraft system is ruled out.”

The Ukrainian International Airlines took off at 6:12 a.m. Wednesday, Tehran time, after nearly an hour’s delay at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport, the main airport for travelers in Iran. It gained altitude heading west, reaching nearly 8,000 feet, according to both the report and flight-tracking data.

Then something went wrong, though “no radio messages were received from the pilot regarding unusual situations,” the report said. In emergencies, pilots reach out to air-traffic controllers to warn them and to clear the runway for their arrival, though their first priority is to keep the aircraft flying.

Eyewitnesses, including the crew of another flight passing above, described seeing the plane engulfed in flames before crashing at 6:18 a.m., the report said. The crash caused a massive explosion when the plane hit the ground, likely because the aircraft had been fully loaded with fuel for the flight to Kyiv, Ukraine.

The report also confirmed that both of the “black boxes” that contain data and cockpit communications from the plane had been recovered, though they sustained damage and some parts of their memory was lost.

Hours before the plane crash the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration had issued an emergency flight restriction barring U.S. carriers and pilots from flying over areas of Iraqi, Iranian and some Persian Gulf airspace warning of the “potential for miscalculation or misidentification” for civilian aircraft due to heightened political and military tensions.

Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s Security Council, told Ukrainian media that officials had several working theories regarding the crash, including a missile strike.

”A strike by a missile, possibly a Tor missile system, is among the main (theories), as information has surfaced on the internet about elements of a missile being found near the site of the crash,” Danilov said.

Ukrainian investigators who arrived in Iran on Thursday awaited permission from Iranian authorities to examine the crash site and look for missile fragments, Danilov said.

The Tor is a Russian-made missile system. Russia delivered 29 Tor-M1s to Iran in 2007, and Iran has displayed the missiles in military parades.

Iran did not immediately respond to the Ukrainian comments. However, Gen. Abolfazl Shekarchi, the spokesman of the Iranian armed forces, denied a missile hit the airplane in a comments reported Wednesday by the semiofficial Fars news agency. He dismissed the allegation as “psychological warfare” by foreign-based Iranian opposition groups.

Ukraine has a grim history with missile attacks, including in July 2014 when one such strike downed a Malaysian Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard.

The plane was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, at least 63 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. Many of the passengers were believed to be international students attending universities in Canada; they were making their way back to Toronto by way of Kyiv after visiting with family during the winter break.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said, “Undoubtedly, the priority for Ukraine is to identify the causes of the plane crash. We will surely find out the truth.”

The crash ranked among the worst losses of life for Canadians in an aviation disaster. The flag over Parliament in Ottawa was lowered to half-staff, and Prime Minister Trudeau vowed to get to the bottom of the disaster.

The U.S. accident investigator, the National Transportation Safety Board, is talking to the State Department and the Treasury Department about traveling to Iran to inspect the U.S.-built aircraft and working with Iranian authorities despite U.S. economic sanctions against that country. Federal officials are concerned about sending employees to Iran because of the heightened tensions.

'Our kids are worthy': Demolition begins on Union football stadium's west side in preparation for $42 million renovation project

Demolition crews began tearing down the home section of Union High School’s football stadium Thursday morning to kick off an extensive multimillion-dollar renovation project.

A crowd of current and former district employees gathered around Union Tuttle Stadium as heavy machinery pulled apart bleachers in preparation for the construction of a new $42 million stadium complex and fine arts addition.

Voters approved refurbishing Union Tuttle Stadium as part of a $128.6 million, five-year bond series that passed in 2018.

Tearing down the stadium’s west side will take about six to eight weeks. It’ll be replaced by a modern structure with improved accessibility along with a new wrestling room, a press box, a visitor’s locker room and two concession stands.

The east side — where visitors sit — won’t be demolished, but it will receive updated fixtures and undergo concrete repairs. There also will be cosmetic improvements involving concessions, restrooms, storage rooms and a small locker room.

In addition to the stadium makeover, a two-story fine arts building will be built beyond the north end zone to become home to Union’s 300-member band program.

The final phase of the project involves renovations inside the high school that will provide new spaces for the arts, volleyball and spirit groups.

The renovations to the visitors’ side of the stadium will be completed by August. The rest of the complex is expected to open in 2021, followed by the fine arts addition in 2022.

By the time everything is finished, the field will almost entirely be encased by structures.

Superintendent Kirt Hartzler said the Union football program modified its schedule for the 2020-21 school year to play only three or four home games due to the renovations. Spectators will use the east and north bleachers during the 2020 season.

“Those will not be our biggest games in terms of crowd capacity or size,” Hartzler said. “We’ll play all of our larger games away next year.”

The stadium’s capacity, which previously was 10,000, will shrink by about 160 in an effort to make the seating more comfortable. Around 1,000 chairbacks will be added, and there also will be more seating for people with physical handicaps.

The need for a new football complex became evident a few years ago with the need for numerous repairs that would have cost the district millions of dollars. The stadium also lacked adequate restrooms and concessions for larger games, Hartzler said. The press box didn’t have any restrooms or an elevator.

Concerns also arose from the increasingly high usage of Union Tuttle Stadium, which was built in 1976. It’s hosted 866 events in the past two years alone.

District officials hired a team of engineers and architects to perform a feasibility study and evaluate the condition of the stadium.

“They came back by saying, ‘We could do this, but in the long run this would be something that, over time, we probably would have to go back and do again,” Hartzler said.

“We just didn’t think that was the responsible thing to do, knowing that we could spend a little more money and certainly produce something that then would be very dynamic and meet all of our needs, both in athletics and fine arts.”

The superintendent said he’s sometimes asked why he frequently pushes for building expensive facilities with a sense of grandeur.

Recent examples include the creation of the STEM Design Lab and the “front house” renovation of the Performing Arts Center at Union High School. There’s also the state-of-the-art Ellen Ochoa Elementary School, which was designed to be high-tech and energy efficient with LED lights and skylights.

“My statement is this: that our kids are worthy, and they’re deserving of this,” Hartzler said. “I’m never going to apologize for building these great facilities for our kids because they’re the ones who we have to continue to keep at the forefront of what we do.”

Gallery: Demolition begins at Union-Tuttle Stadium

Gallery: Demolition begins at Union-Tuttle Stadium


Fees that tribes pay to state in limbo amid compact dispute

OKLAHOMA CITY — The fate of millions of dollars in exclusivity fees tribes pay the state in exchange for operating Class III gaming is up in the air.

In a memo from the Governor’s Office to lawmakers and Cabinet members, Donelle Harder, a Stitt spokeswoman, said his office is “actively researching this matter.”

Stitt and tribes are at an impasse on gaming compacts.

Stitt believes the compacts expired Jan. 1 and that Class III gaming is now illegal. He is seeking higher rates.

The tribes believe the compacts automatically renewed and continue to operate facilities offering Class III gaming, which includes slot machines, craps and roulette.

The tribes pay between 4% and 10% in exclusivity fees, which last year totaled nearly $150 million. The bulk of the fees go to education.

Three of the state’s largest gaming tribes have sued the state in federal court, seeking a declaration that the compacts automatically renewed.

“The governor does not want to see a disruption in funds to public education and we are actively researching how to protect those funds while this is addressed in federal court and while the governor continues to pursue opportunities to move a Model Gaming Compact forward that is a win-win for both the tribes and the state,” Harder said in a statement.

Oklahoma is expected to have a flat budget for fiscal year 2021.

December exclusivity fees are due no later than Jan. 20, according to the compact. January exclusivity fees are due no later than Feb. 20, according to the compact.

If Stitt accepts the January fees, it could be used as an argument that the compacts did automatically renew.

Matthew Morgan, Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association chairman, said the tribes plan to continue to remit the exclusivity fees to the state.

During a recent standoff between the state of Florida and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the tribe continued to offer Class III gaming, but instead of paying exclusivity fees to the state, the tribe put the money into an account until a resolution could be reached.

Harder said the memo, which addressed several subjects concerning the gaming dispute, was sent to respond to frequently asked questions.

The memo said the timeline for achieving a resolution is “unknown” and “contingent largely on the federal court.”

Tribal gaming 101: What you need to know about Oklahoma tribal gaming

Tribal gaming 101: What you need to know about Oklahoma tribal gaming


Stay with internal candidates or go national in search for next Tulsa police chief? Tulsans give Mayor Bynum differing advice

Mayor G.T. Bynum’s final public meeting to gather input on the city’s next police chief ended as the first one began — with calls for a better and more humane Police Department and disagreement over whether the mayor should look outside the city to fill the position.

“I want our Tulsa police chief to be able to talk to the people,” Jovan McNeil said at Thursday’s meeting.

It was the simplest expression of a common theme of the mayor’s meetings the last three nights: Tulsans want a police force they can trust and a leader who will make building that trust a top priority.

Bynum has pointed to that issue as one reason he thinks he’ll find the best person for the job among the seven internal candidates who have applied.

Chief Chuck Jordan has announced that he will retire effective Feb. 1.

In explaining his position again Thursday night at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, Bynum prefaced his remarks by reminding the approximately 150 people in the audience that he has not ruled out an external candidate.

“I’m just being honest that with the quality of the group of applicants it would surprise me if it went external,” he said. “Here’s why: Because I want somebody who is going to be an effective change agent, and I think that a person who has a prior understanding of the organization and has all the ready-built relationships and earned the respect of those they would be leading in that organization has a better chance for success.”

Several people urged Bynum to select an internal candidate, citing many of the same reasons he expressed. But there were speakers such as Ted Kachel, who urged the opposite.

“All I am saying is you would strengthen the hand of those seven (internal candidates) if you pick one if they were put up against the nation,” he said.

The internal candidates are Maj. Luther Breashears, Deputy Chief Jonathan Brooks, Deputy Chief Eric Dalgleish, Maj. Wendell Franklin, 911 Center Director Matthew Kirkland, Deputy Chief Dennis Larsen and Maj. Laurel Roberts.

Bynum has not set a deadline for when he will select the next chief. The town hall meetings this week are part of an extensive listening tour of sorts that he has undertaken to hear what Tulsans want from the next police chief and the Police Department itself.

What remains unclear is to what extent the public will be involved in the selection process going forward. Bynum on Thursday was again pressed by several speakers to allow the public to ask questions of the candidates in a public forum.

The mayor explained his opposition to the idea by saying he wants to respect the selection process and those candidates going through it “and not have it become a contest.”

One of the seven candidates potentially is going to be selected, the mayor added, “and I don’t feel like that is a position that is a responsible one for me to put them in for a job interview process.”

One of the nearly 30 speakers Thursday was retired Tulsa Police Sgt. Dave Walker.

Walker said he knows all the candidates and believes that the mayor can find the next police chief among them.

“The profession needs that,” he said.

The next chief, he added, must be a leader who can communicate and reach across the divide between the police and the community.

“I’ve seen it from the cops’ side, and I’ve seen it from the community side,” he said. “We’re not that far apart, but we’re not talking together.”