Russia to suspend flights to Egypt

Merrit Kennedy
Associated Press

Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt — Russia announced Friday it will suspend all flights to Egypt until security is improved at its airports, the first sign of wariness from Moscow after days of resisting British and American warnings that a bomb planted by the Islamic State group may have brought down a Russian plane in the Sinai Peninsula last week.

The suspension is a heavy blow to Egypt’s vital tourism industry. Russian tourists fleeing the cold to flock to Egypt’s beach resorts have helped keep tourism alive after it collapsed across much of the country in the past five years of turmoil. Moscow’s move will also strand 30,000 to 40,000 Russians currently in Egypt, many of them in Sharm el-Sheikh, the Sinai resort from which the Russian jet took off just before crashing.

Already there was chaos at Sharm el-Sheikh’s airport as Britain struggled to bring home some 20,000 of its nationals stranded since London halted flights to Sinai earlier in the week. Hundreds of British tourists were brought to the airport Friday, told they’d have flights out, only to then be told they didn’t amid confusion caused by new British security measures banning checked-in baggage on the return flights. One irate tourist shouted at the British ambassador in the departure hall,

“When are we going home?” one irate tourist shouted at British Ambassador to Egypt John Casson when he appeared in the departure hall trying to reassure the beleaguered travelers.

The Russian carrier Metrojet’s Airbus A321-200 crashed 23 minutes after takeoff from Sharm el-Sheikh on Saturday, killing all 224 people on board, mostly Russians. While the U.S. and Britain have stopped short of a categorical assignment of blame, Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday it was “more likely than not” that the cause was a bomb — a claim dismissed as premature by the Russians and Egyptians.

Still, on Friday, the head of Russian intelligence, Alexander Bortnikov, recommended a suspension. “I think it will be reasonable to suspend all Russian flights to Egypt until we determine the real reasons of what happened,” he said in televised comments. “It concerns tourist flights most of all.”

President Vladimir Putin quickly agreed. His spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow that the suspension would last “until when a proper level of aviation security is in place,” denying it would go on until the investigation was completed.

Asked whether the suspension means that Russia now views terrorism as the main theory, Peskov said: “It definitely doesn’t mean that. Not a single theory can be given priority since there aren’t any definite indications to prove it.”

Wreckage from the plane has been brought to Moscow to be tested for any possible traces of explosives, according to Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Puchkov. The samples came “from all parts where traces of explosives could be,” he said in televised comments.

A U.S. official briefed on the Metrojet crash told the AP earlier that intercepted communications by Islamic militants in the Sinai played a role in the tentative conclusion that the Islamic State group’s Sinai affiliate had planted an explosive on the flight.

While Russia still underlined that no conclusion had been reached, it joined Britain in demanding stricter security measures at Egyptian airports. Britain on Wednesday grounded all flights to and from Sinai , but Russia’s was more sweeping, covering all destinations in Egypt.

Egypt — which stands to lose millions of dollars from its vital tourism industry — maintains there is nothing wrong with the Sharm el-Sheikh airport, the main entry to Sinai beach resorts.

But a former senior official in Egypt’s Tourism Ministry, Magdy Salim, said “airport security procedures in Egypt are almost (all) bad” and marred by “insufficiencies.” He said searches are sometimes lax. “A stray donkey was found in Cairo airport a few months ago … We understand why people are scared.”

London approved the resumption of British flights to Sinai starting Friday and planned a wave of flights to retrieve its stranded nationals, but it banned passengers from checking in luggage on the flights. Instead, any checked-in luggage is to be brought later on cargo planes.

But the pile-up of checked-in luggage overwhelmed the airport’s storage facilities and was disrupting operations of other flights, Egypt’s civil aviation minister, Hossam Kamal, said. So Egypt limited the number of British flights coming to pick up the tourists, reducing them to eight on Friday instead of the planned 29, he said.

The result was chaos and high tempers as British tourists brought to the airport were told their flights were not coming to get them. Several flights that took off from London had to turn around mid-air or land elsewhere after Egyptian authorities told them they couldn’t land at Sharm el-Sheikh.

“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 buses ferrying British and Russian tourists waited outside the airport, the line stretching up to a kilometer (half mile) as police inspected each vehicle. Standing in a crush of people waiting to pass through security, Terrance Mathurian, a British builder vacationing with his family, said hotel staff told them in the morning to head to the airport, following conflicting information.

At the same time, Dutch carrier KLM allowed its passengers leaving at Cairo airport to only take hand luggage for a flight on Friday. A statement on KLM’s website says the measure is “based on national and international information and out of precaution.”

As a result, only 115 of the 247 passengers booked on the plane took the flight Friday, with the rest refusing to leave without their check-in bags, security officials at the Cairo airport told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said his government’s decision was linked to lax security. “We have the impression that there are insufficient security measures there,” he told reporters in The Hague and added that the advisory did not cover the whole of Egypt.

Air France said in a statement to the AP on Friday that it is reinforcing screening in Cairo and monitoring the situation with Egyptian authorities. France’s Foreign Ministry on Friday urged its citizens to avoid Sharm el-Sheikh and also the Sinai resort of Taba as well as surrounding areas, unless they have an “imperative reason” to go.

The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for bringing down the plane, but Russian and Egyptian officials say the claim was not credible. Russia is conducting an air war in Syria against Islamic State militants who have promised retaliation.