Up to 20,000 British tourists are awaiting flights back home following the UK’s “precautionary” decision to suspend all flights by UK-based airlines over Egypt’s Sinai after fears that an explosive device was the likely cause of last weekend's crash of a Russian airliner over the peninsula.
In statements to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond said on Thursday that the UK would do whatever it could, regardless of the cost, to bring the tourists back home.
“If we have to send in additional personnel, additional equipment, if we have to have unusual handling for returning those flights, we will do so, regardless of the cost, regardless of the delay, regardless of the inconvenience,” Hammond said.
The British Embassy spokesman in Egypt told Ahram Online that the UK is currently working with Egyptian authorities to agree on security protocol that will allow flights to return British passengers back home.
The spokesman also said that there are currently not many British tourists at the airport, but there are approximately 20,000 British nationals in Sharm El-Sheikh.
According to Hammond, there were two stages of the emergency operation: measures to get the 20,000 UK tourists home and longer-term arrangements to allow resumption of flights as normal.
According to British Sky News, 19 flights that were due to leave the UK for Sharm El-Sheikh on Thursday and would have brought tourists home have been cancelled.
The British foreign secretary said that return flights were not expected to resume until Friday at the earliest, estimating that it would take up to ten days, starting Friday, to bring the stranded tourists home.
'Days or weeks'
Hammond said that resuming UK flights to Sharm El-Sheikh, ‘could take days, could take weeks, it all depends on the experts.’
“Flights are currently suspended and will remain suspended until we are satisfied that flights can leave Sharm El-Sheikh with British nationals safely,” the British Embassy told Ahram Online.
A team of UK aviation experts reached the Egyptian resort on Wednesday ‘to make an assessment of the security arrangements in place at the airport and to identify whether any further action is required.’
An additional number of experts are expected in Egypt on Thursday to assist in the planned emergency operation.
Travel group Thomas Cook issued a statement confirming that it has been advised by the Foreign and Commonwealth (FCO) to "advise against all but essential air travel to Sharm El-Sheikh airport with immediate effect."
"Thomas Cook has cancelled its flight and holiday programme to Sharm El-Sheikh up to and including Thursday 12 November 2015,” the statement read.
In an official statement on Thursday, Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu-Zeid said the British suspension of flights was a decision taken ''unilaterally'', and without consultation with the Egyptians, despite high level contacts between the two concerned sides hours before the decision was made.
“Egypt responded to the UK's concerns by tightening Sharm's airport security as a proactive, routine measure, and not in relation to the cause of the crash,” Abu-Zeid said.
On Wednesday, Egypt criticised the UK’s decision to suspend flights over Sinai.
Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said he was "somewhat surprised" by remarks from Britain Prime Minister David Cameron that an explosive device was the likely cause of the Russian airliner crash.
"This is a matter for the investigation to clarify and we should not prejudge or take any measures that might have implications," Shoukry told CNN.
Hammond defended the UK’s decision in several interviews, saying that the decision to suspend the flights was urged upon nature of intelligence that indicated that the accident was caused by a bomb.
"Some intelligence we can share, some we can’t. But we reached this decision on the basis of a review of all the information – intelligence is one part of it, but there’s open-source information, there’s contextual background information – and we’ve reached a conclusion,” Hammond said.
However, Egypt’s civil aviation minister Hossam Kamal refuted the claims, saying that there is currently no evidence that confirms such a claim in front of the investigating committee.
Kamal said that Egypt is keen on the accuracy and the safety of the investigations, guaranteeing that the facts are presented to the world to ensure the aviations’ security and safety in general.