Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to suspend all Russian flights to Egypt on Friday after a recommendation by his chief of intelligence for a halt until the cause of last week’s crash of a passenger jet in the Sinai Peninsula is determined, as an official said pieces of wreckage from the plane had been brought to Moscow to test for possible traces of explosives.
The suspension came after several days of statements by British and American officials that it was possible a bomb on board had brought down the Russia carrier Metrojet’s Airbus A321-200, which crashed 23 minutes after takeoff from the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all 224 people on board. Russian and Egyptian officials had bristled at the statements, saying it was too soon to tell the cause.
The suspension, covering all of Egypt, is even more sweeping than that imposed by Britain, which had halted flights to Sharm el-Sheikh only.
“I think it will be reasonable to suspend all Russian flights to Egypt until we determine the real reasons of what happened,” intelligence chief Alexander Bortnikov Bortnikov said in televised comments. “It concerns tourist flights most of all.”
Russia’s emergency situations minister, Vladimir Puchkov, said wreckage from the plane have been brought to Moscow for tests. “These are necessary samples from all parts where traces of explosives could be. All of these samples have been delivered to Moscow, and we are studying them,” Puchkov said.
Baggage ban complicates repatriation
Britain’s efforts, meanwhile, to bring home hundreds of British tourists stranded at Sharm el-Sheikh airport by its suspension of flights were snarled by new security measures put in place for its planes, including a ban of checking in luggage.
Tempers ran high among the crowds of tourists in the airport departure lounge. When U.K. Ambassador John Casson appeared to reassure them, one irate British tourist who had waited at the airport since early morning hours, harangued him with angry shouts of: “When are we going home?”
Britain had grounded all flights to and from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on Wednesday, saying there was a “significant possibility” the Russian airliner that crashed last Saturday, killing 224 people, was downed by a bomb. But London approved the resumption of flights starting Friday, though passengers were only allowed to take carry-on bags with them.
But Egypt prevented some flights from coming to pick up the tourists because of the pile-up of baggage. Egypt’s civil aviation minister, Hossam Kamal, said there would be eight flights in all to the U.K. on Friday, instead of the 29 planned earlier. He said the British airlines are flying without passengers’ luggage, while Sharm el-Sheikh airport’s storage can hold no more than 120 tons of luggage left behind.
“This big volume will affect the smooth operation of the rest of the domestic and international flights,” said Kamal, adding that a cargo plane would carry bags separately for each flight.
British carrier EasyJet had been due to operate 10 flights from the Red Sea resort but said eight would not be able to fly because Egypt had suspended them. “We are working with the U.K. government at the highest level on a solution,” it said in a statement.
Two other carriers, Monarch and British Airways, said they still planned to operate flights back from Sinai on Friday.
The development is likely to hinder Britain’s attempts to smoothly bring back the estimated 20,000 U.K. nationals in Sharm el-Sheikh. Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said earlier Friday that “most of the people who were expecting to be home by tonight will be home by tonight.”
On the ground in Sharm el-Sheikh, employee Mohammed Abdel Fattah who works as a handling agent for EasyJet, said two of the budget airline’s flights to the U.K. have been checked in. He told the rest of EasyJet passengers to return to their hotels, “until there are new updates.”
“Why all of a sudden is everything on hold,” asked one of the stranded British tourists, Carla Dublin. “We don’t know what’s going on.”
Casson, the ambassador, tried to reassure the tourists, saying that British authorities will “continue to work until we have everybody home.”
“There are challenging, difficult issues to work through, this is a busy airport and we need to make sure people leave in a way that is safe,” he said.
Early in the morning, the Egyptians carried out expanded security checks as dozens of busses, ferrying British and Russian tourists, waited outside the airport, the line stretching up to a kilometer (half mile) as police inspected each vehicle.
Russia and Egypt have dismissed Western suggestions that a bomb may have caused the crash last Saturday, saying the speculation was a rush to judgment and insisting the investigation must run its course. The United States and British leaders have stopped short of a categorical assignment of blame in the crash, but Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday it was “more likely than not” that the cause was a bomb.
The crash prompted companies to ground flights from and to the Red Sea resort, stranding thousands of tourists this week. Britain later said additional security measures would be in place, including only allowing passengers to carry hand baggage, while checked luggage will be transported separately. The carry-on measure applies only to those departing from Sharm el-Sheikh, British officials said.