MOSCOW (AP) — In an abrupt turnaround, Russia on Friday suspended all passenger flights to Egypt after days of resisting U.S. and British suggestions that a bomb may have brought down a Russian plane in the Sinai Peninsula a week ago.
The move dealt a sharp blow to both countries' tourism sectors amid fears about security in Egypt.
Russia's federal aviation agency said airlines would be allowed to send empty planes to bring home travelers, but it was unclear when the Russians in Egypt, estimated to number at least 40,000, would be able to return home as planned from the Red Sea resorts including Sharm el-Sheikh.
Within hours of the Oct. 31 crash of the Metrojet Airbus 321-200 that killed all 224 aboard — mostly Russians — a faction of the Islamic State militant group claimed to have downed it in retaliation for Moscow's airstrikes that began a month earlier against fighters in Syria. The claim was initially dismissed on the grounds that the IS affiliate in Egypt's troubled Sinai region didn't have missiles capable of hitting high-flying planes.
British and U.S. officials, guided primarily by intelligence intercepts and satellite imagery, suggested a bomb might have been aboard the aircraft. The Russians and Egyptians called that premature, saying the investigation had not concluded.
After Britain suspended its flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh, Prime Minister David Cameron said it was "more likely than not" that the cause was a bomb. President Barack Obama also said the U.S. was taking "very seriously" the possibility that a bomb brought down the plane in the Sinai, where Egyptian forces have been battling an Islamic insurgency for years.
As the suspicions grew, Russia appeared unwilling to countenance the possibility, and Egyptian officials played down terrorism as a cause of the crash, with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi calling the IS claim "propaganda" designed to embarrass his government.
But on Friday, the head of Russian intelligence, Alexander Bortnikov, recommended a suspension of all flights to Egypt "until we determine the real reasons of what happened," and President Vladimir Putin quickly agreed.
The flight suspension order would last until "a proper level of aviation security is in place," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, denying it will run until the investigation was finished. He added that it "definitely doesn't mean" Russia regards terrorism as the main theory.
Putin and el-Sissi spoke by telephone a few hours after the suspension was announced, and they agreed to cooperate further in order to "confirm the overall effectiveness of the security measures taken by Egyptian authorities at the airports of the country," the Kremlin said in a statement.
The U.S. Homeland Security Department announced new procedures that will include expanded security screening of items put on commercial jets, airport assessments and offers of security assistance for certain international airports. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the new protocols apply to fewer than 10 overseas airports in "the region in which the Sinai Peninsula is located."
Wreckage from the Metrojet plane was brought to Moscow to be tested for any trace 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.
France 2 TV, citing an investigator who had access to one of the Metrojet plane's flight recorders, reported that "the sound of an explosion can be distinctly heard during the flight." France's BEA accident investigation agency said it could not confirm the report.
There was chaos, confusion and frustration at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport as Britain struggled to bring home some 20,000 of its nationals stranded since London halted its flights earlier in the week.
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 luggage on the flights. Instead, any checked-in bags were to be brought later on cargo planes.
But the pileup of checked-in luggage overwhelmed the airport and disrupted flight operations, said Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal. So Egypt limited the number of incoming British flights to pick up the tourists, reducing them to eight Friday instead of the planned 29, he said.
Several flights that took off from London had to turn around or go elsewhere after Egyptian authorities told them they couldn't land at Sharm el-Sheikh.
Hundreds of British tourists were brought to the airport for flights out, only to be told they didn't have one. More confusion was caused by the checked baggage ban.
"When are we going home?" one irate tourist shouted at British Ambassador John Casson when he appeared in the departure hall trying to reassure beleaguered travelers.
In the morning, 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 go through security, British tourist Terrance Mathurian said hotel staff told him and his family in the morning to head to the airport despite the conflicting information.
Besides Britain, Ireland also suspended flights to Sharm el-Sheikh on Wednesday. Since then, countries including Belgium, the Netherlands and France have told citizens not to travel to the Red Sea resort. Several carriers have stopped flying to Sharm, including German airlines Edelweiss and Eurowings and Slovenia's Adria.
Dutch carrier KLM imposed a hand-luggage-only policy on flights out of Egypt, while Air France said it was reinforcing screening procedures in Cairo but still accepting checked-in luggage.
Russia's suspension of passenger flights was more sweeping than the others, covering all of Egypt.
Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said Russia was making plans to ensure additional transportation "will be developed in the next several weeks."
Egypt is one of the most popular destinations for Russian tourists, especially in the winter when the sun and clear seas lure them away from gray, frigid winters.
Eastern European visitors are a crucial part of Egypt's tourism market, making up 45 percent of all arrivals in June, according to Egyptian government statistics.
About 240,000 Russians had already bought Egyptian tour packages for the New Year holiday period, Vladimir Kantarovich, vice president of the Russian Tour Operators Association, told The Associated Press.
He said the packages averaged 1,000 euros ($1,100) per person — a quarter-billion-dollar blow. Egypt's tourism sector has been staggering for years, and Russia's has been hit hard in the past year by the fall of the ruble.
Tourism, which represents 11 percent of Egypt's economy and almost 20 percent of crucial foreign currency revenues, is making a gradual recovery after years of political upheaval since the 2011 uprising that deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak,
The ban on new Russian passengers heading to Egypt took effect at 8 p.m. (1700 GMT, noon EST), the federal aviation agency Rosaviatsiya said in a statement.
While Russia still underlined that no conclusion had been reached about the cause of the Metrojet crash, it joined Britain in demanding stricter security at Egyptian airports.
Egypt 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."
Salim said searches are sometimes lax, adding: "We understand why people are scared."