By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
LONDON — Citing concern that a Russian airliner “may well have been brought down by an explosive device,” the British government Wednesday canceled all flights to Britain from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, described the move as a “precautionary measure” while an investigation continued into what caused Metrojet Flight 9268 to apparently break up in midair and crash in the Sinai Peninsula on Saturday. All 224 people aboard were killed.
Although analysts initially dismissed claims by an extremist group linked Islamic State that it shot down the plane — the aircraft’s cruising altitude of 31,000 feet is believed to have been out of reach of weapons that Islamic State possesses — the possibility of a bomb aboard the airliner has not been ruled out.
The Reuters news agency reported Wednesday that investigators are beginning to believe the crash was caused by an explosion, although they don’t know if it was triggered by a bomb, a fuel tank failure or some other cause. The report cited an unidentified Egyptian source close to the crash investigation.
Cameron’s spokesman said British aviation experts were en route to Sharm el-Sheikh, where they would evaluate the security arrangements at the airport and decide whether further action was warranted. The assessment was expected to be completed Wednesday evening, raising the possibility that flights from the resort to Britain could resume quite quickly.
Air service from Britain to Sharm el-Sheikh operated as usual Wednesday, and was over by the time that Downing Street issued its announcement.
Within hours of the crash on Saturday, multiple airlines announced that, as a cautionary measure, they would reroute their flights to avoid crossing over the Sinai desert.
The suspension of British flights came a day before Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was scheduled to arrive for a visit to Britain. Cameron called el-Sissi on Tuesday evening, and the two leaders agreed that while “it was important not to pre-judge the investigation,” tightening security measures would be wise, the spokesman said.
Cameron’s office did not indicate whether a specific piece of evidence had triggered the suspension of flights.
Russian officials say the Airbus A321-200, carrying mostly Russian vacationers home to St. Petersburg, broke up in the air 23 minutes after takeoff. But they have refrained from announcing the cause of the crash, citing the ongoing investigation.
Metrojet, the plane’s owner, and Russian authorities have offered conflicting theories of what happened, according to The Associated Press. Metrojet officials have insisted the crash was due to an “external impact,” not a technical malfunction or pilot error. Russian officials have said it’s too early to jump to that conclusion.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted Tuesday as saying there is no evidence that the plane was brought down by an act of terror. He added that it was inappropriate to link the crash to Russia’s airstrikes in Syria, as the Islamic State-linked group did on Saturday. Russia has been bombing Islamic State and other rebel groups seeking the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“Hypothetic insinuations on that score are inappropriate,” Peskov said, according to the official Tass news agency.
Rescue teams in Egypt continued to search the Sinai desert Wednesday for more remains and parts of the plane’s fuselage, AP reported, as grief-stricken families in St. Petersburg faced an agonizing wait to bury their loved ones.
(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
The Metrojet’s Airbus A-321 with registration number EI-ETJ that crashed in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, is seen in this picture taken in Antalya, Turkey September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Philipp Piskol