Speculation continues over cause of Russian plane crash in Egypt's Sinai

Omar Halawa, Monday 9 Nov 2015

Russian Plane
Wreckage of the Russian plane Airbus A-321 in Sinai's desert (Photo: Al Ahram)

Over the past week, officials and media outlets in Egypt and elsewhere have been addressing the question of whether the Russian plane which crashed in Sinai on 31 October was brought down by a bomb or some sort of technical failure.

Egyptian officials stated in initial reports that a likely cause for the crash, which killed all 224 people on board, was a "technical failure," while President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi urged against speculation until the conclusion of the investigation, which he said “might last for months."

On the day of the incident, the Islamic State (IS) militant group released an online statement claiming it was responsible for the crash, which was dismissed by El-Sisi as “propaganda”. The claim did, however, fuel speculation over the possibility the plane was brought down by a bomb.

On Monday, Alexander Smirnov, deputy-general director of the Russian airline Kogalymavia, said that his firm did "rule out a technical fault of the plane or a pilot error," adding that "the only possible explanation could be an external impact on the airplane."

On late Wednesday, the British government decided to halt its flights to Sharm El-Sheikh pending further assessment of safety procedures at Sharm's airport.

"While the investigation is still ongoing we cannot say categorically why the Russian jet crashed. But as more information has come to light, we have become concerned that the plane may well have been brought down by an explosive device," the British government said in a statement, which was followed by a statement issued by British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond saying that his government believes that there is a "significant possibility that an explosive device caused the crash."

Egypt seemed surprised by the British reaction, with the Egyptian foreign ministry saying in an official statement that the decision to halt flights “was taken unilaterally and there were no consultations with Egypt over it despite the high-level contacts that took place between the two countries hours before."

Shortly following the UK’s statements, several media outlets began to speculate over the possibility the plane was bombed.

A US intelligence official told CNN on Wednesday that a bomb was most likely planted on the plane with "an assist from someone at the airport."

On Thursday, US Secretary of State John Kerry told his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry "that what is reported by some media outlets over American observations of the reason of the incident doesn’t represent the stance of the US administration."

On Friday, however, US President Barak Obama told a US radio station that he thinks there "is a possibility that there was a bomb on board."

On Saturday morning, the AFP quoted an anonymous source which it said was "close to the probe" saying that "an analysis of the Russian plane's black boxes point to a bomb attack."

A few hours later, the Egyptian head of the committee investigating the crash, Ayman El-Moqadem, said at a press conference that it was "too soon to determine what caused the plane crash," though he did say that "a noise was heard in the last second of a recording taken from the plane's black boxes."

El-Moqadem criticised media reports saying a bomb caused the crash, stating that "the committee was not provided with any information or evidence in this regard," though stressing that the committee was "considering with great attention all possible scenarios for the cause of the accident."

Another point of controversy involved a press conference by the investigative committee which was held solely by the Egyptian El-Moqadem, with six chairs for other members of the 47-person committee removed before the start of the conference. The committee is composed of international aviation experts from Russia, France, Ireland and Germany.

Mass evacuations?

The UK and Russia showed the most significant response to the crash, with Britain sending planes to fly thousands of its citizens out of Sinai and other Red Sea spots in Egypt. British officials said it could take 10 days for all British tourists to be returned home.

Russia, which had 80,000 of its citizens in Red Sea resorts, sent 44 planes for Russians in Egypt, and Russian President Vladimir Putin decided on Friday to suspend all flights to Egypt until the cause behind the plane crash is determined.

Russia did, however, state that these precautions did not constitute a mass evacuation, with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich saying that "tourists will be returning from Egypt to Russia when they planned."

"Most people left for two weeks -- our usual holiday tour lasts two weeks -- therefore they will return in about two weeks," he added.

On Sunday, the British embassy in Cairo issued a statement saying that the UK is "not evacuating British holidaymakers in Egypt, but rather assisting them to return home at the end of their holidays."

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