US, UK say bomb may have downed Russian jet in Egypt

5th November 2015, Comments 0 comments

The United States and Britain believe a bomb may have downed a Russian tourist plane in Egypt, as London called an emergency cabinet meeting Thursday on how to start repatriating thousands of its holidaymakers.

Britain and Ireland have temporarily suspended flights to and from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where the plane took off from on Saturday bound for Saint Petersburg before crashing minutes later, killing all 224 people on board.

The Islamic State (ISIL) jihadist group claims it caused the disaster.

"A bomb is a highly possible scenario," a US official told AFP. "It would be something that ISIL would want to do."

British Prime Minister David Cameron's office said: "We have become concerned that the plane may well have been brought down by an explosive device".

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was set to hold talks with Cameron in London on Thursday, during his first visit to Britain since he led the army's overthrow of his predecessor Mohamed Morsi.

Cameron was also to chair a meeting of Britain's emergencies committee on Thursday.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Britain was planning emergency measures to repatriate holidaymakers from Sharm el-Sheikh.

He said Britain, airlines and the Egyptian authorities were "putting in place short-term emergency measures that will allow us to screen everything going onto those planes, double-check those planes so we can be confident that they can fly back safely to the UK".

Flights should resume from Friday, he said.

There are an estimated 20,000 Britons currently in the resort.

In Russia, authorities are expected to bury the first victim of the crash -- the country's deadliest air disaster.

Moscow and Cairo both dismissed Islamic State's initial claim it brought down the Airbus A-321 in Egypt's restive Sinai Peninsula, but IS on Wednesday again insisted they were responsible and promised to reveal how.

If confirmed, it would be the first time the militant group, which controls vast tracts of Syria and Iraq, has bombed a passenger plane.

The commander of the Russian air force Viktor Bondarev said Moscow sent anti-aircraft missile systems to Syria to back up its air campaign in order to counter "every possible threat".

"Let's imagine a military plane is hijacked and taken to a neighbouring country and air strikes are aimed at us. And we have to be ready for this," he told the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.

Egyptian officials said investigators probing the Russian plane's black boxes had extracted the data from one of them for analysis, but added the other had been damaged and required a lot of work.

- 'Prove we didn't' -

In a statement Wednesday, IS said it had brought down the plane -- and challenged sceptics to prove otherwise.

"Prove that we didn't bring it down, and how it came down. We will detail how it came down at the time of our choosing," the group said in an audio statement posted online.

The IS affiliate in Egypt is waging a bloody insurgency in the north of the Sinai peninsula that has killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers.

IS has deployed shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles in the past, but they are not known to possess weapons that could bring down an airliner at high altitude.

Egypt has played down the possibility of a bomb attack and stressed the need to wait for the results of an international investigation, keen to preserve the country's economically vital tourism sector.

- 'Huge tragedy' -

Russian airline Kogalymavia, which operated the plane, has ruled out a technical fault or human error, drawing fire from the head of Russia's aviation authority for a "premature" assessment.

Experts say the fact that debris and bodies were strewn over a wide area points indicated the aircraft disintegrated in mid-air, meaning the crash was likely caused by either a technical fault or a bomb on board.

Flight KGL9268 was flying at altitude of 30,000 feet (9,150 metres) when it lost contact with authorities, 23 minutes after take-off.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has described the crash as a "huge tragedy".

Relatives of the victims have begun identifying the bodies after two planes delivered the remains of many to Saint Petersburg.

The commander of the Russian air force Viktor Bondarev said Moscow sent anti-aircraft missile systems to Syria to back up its air campaign in order to counter "every possible threat".

"Let's imagine a military plane is hijacked and taken to a neighbouring country and air strikes are aimed at us. And we have to be ready for this," he told the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.

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© 2015 AFP

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