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Putin agrees to suspend Russian flights to Egypt after crash

Posted at 8:10 AM, Nov 06, 2015

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AP) — 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 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, even as the British government struggled to bring home some 20,000 of its nationals stuck there after it halted flights earlier in the week.

The Russian carrier Metrojet's Airbus A321-200 crashed 23 minutes after takeoff from the Sinai resort of 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 Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Russia's suspension went even further, 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.

London approved the resumption of British flights to Sinai starting Friday but imposed heavier security measures, particularly a ban on checking in baggage. But the result snarled efforts to bring back the hundreds of British tourists waiting at Sharm el-Sheikh airport to return home. Baggage left behind because of the ban was piling up and overwhelming the airport storage, Egypt's civil aviation minister, Hossam Kamal, said.

"This big volume will affect the smooth operation of the rest of the domestic and international flights," said Kamal, adding that a cargo plane would carry bags separately for each flight.

As a result, Egypt was limiting the number of British flights coming to pick up the tourists, reducing them to eight on Friday instead of the planned 29, he said.

Tempers ran high among the crowds of British tourists in the airport departure lounge. When U.K. Ambassador John Casson appeared to reassure them, one irate British tourist who had waited at the airport since early morning hours, harangued him with angry shouts of: "When are we going home?"

British carrier EasyJet had been due to operate 10 flights from the Red Sea resort but said eight would not be able to fly because Egypt had suspended them. At Sharm airport, Eastjet employee Mohammed Abdel Fattah told the rest of the would-be passengers to return to their hotels, "until there are new updates."

"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.