WADI AL-ZOLOMAT, Egypt: A Russian airliner that crashed in Egypt broke up “in the air” strewing fragments across a wide area, an expert said yesterday as investigators probed the disaster that killed 224 people. President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi urged patience to determine the cause of Saturday’s crash, after the Islamic State jihadist group (IS) claimed it brought down the A-321 in Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula.
“The disintegration happened in the air and the fragments are strewn over a large area,” said Viktor Sorochenko, a senior official with Russia’s Interstate Aviation Committee, quoted by the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti from Cairo. Sorochenko, who is heading an international panel of experts, said it was “too early to draw conclusions” about what caused the flight from Sharm el-Sheikh to Saint Petersburg to crash.
Investigators have recovered the “black box” flight recorder and the Egyptian government said its contents were being analysed. “In such cases, leave it to specialists to determine the cause of the plane
crash because it is a subject of an extensive and complicated technical study,” Sisi said. The crash site in the Wadi al-Zolomat area of North Sinai was littered with blackened aircraft parts as the smell of burnt metal lingered, an AFP correspondent said.
There were no bodies visible, but soldiers guarded dozen of bags and suitcases belonging to passengers from flight KGL 9268. A tiny red jacket underlined the horror of the tragedy that also killed 17 children.
Officers involved in the search efforts said rescue crews had recovered 168 bodies so far, including one of a girl found eight kilometres (five miles) from the main wreckage. Army helicopters hovered above the site as the search for bodies continued.
IS claim downplayed
Flags flew at half-mast in Russia yesterday and entertainment programs on television were cancelled on a national day of mourning for the victims, most of them Russians ranging in age from 10 months to 77 years. Cairo said there were 214 Russian and three Ukrainian passengers on board, and seven crew members. Both Cairo and Moscow have downplayed the claim from Egypt’s IS branch that it brought down the aircraft flown by the airline Kogalymavia, operating under the name Metrojet.
Prime Minister Sharif Ismail said experts had confirmed the militants could not down a plane flying at 30,000 feet (9,000 metres), the aircraft’s flight level, and Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said the claim “cannot be considered accurate”.
A Russian team including Sokolov and emergency minister Vladimir Puchkov visited the scene in a remote part of the Sinai. Two air accident investigators from France-Airbus’s home country-were also due in Egypt along with six experts from the aerospace giant. Germany’s Lufthansa, Emirates and Air France all said they would halt flights over Sinai until the reasons for the crash were known.
Meanwhile, United Arab Emirates airlines Emirates, Air Arabia and flydubai said yesterday they were re-routing flights to avoid Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where a Russian aircraft carrying 224 passengers crashed on Saturday. The airlines said they were closely monitoring the area and the re-routing was a security precaution, according to separate emailed statements to Reuters. Re-routing usually means longer flying distances, which add to fuel costs.
Budget carrier easyJet said it was taking advice from all relevant authorities and was continuing to “actively review” the situation. British Airways said in a statement that it did not discuss flight routes, “however we would never fly a route unless it was safe to do so”.
easyJet said that it, like other British airlines, did not overfly central and northern Sinai on the advice of Britain’s Department of Transport. The Russian plane crashed into a mountainous area of central Sinai on Saturday.
“Based on the information received to date, easyJet plans to continue to operate flights to Egypt to carry holidaymakers as planned to and from Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada but will continue to actively review the situation,” it said in a statement.
On Saturday, German carrier Lufthansa and Air France-KLM said they had decided to avoid flying over the peninsula while they waited for clarity on what caused the crash.
“We found a three-year-old girl eight kilometres from the scene” of the main wreckage, an officer told AFP from a military base in El-Hassna, 60 kilometres from the crash site. Many bodies were missing limbs, said the officer, who requested anonymity. The IS affiliate waging an insurgency in the Sinai claimed it brought down the aircraft in revenge for Russian air strikes against the jihadist group in Syria. But experts dismissed the idea.
To reach a plane at that altitude “you would need hard-to-use missiles, so it seems unlikely,” said Jean-Paul Troadec, former director of France’s BEA aviation investigation agency. “This requires trained people and equipment that IS does not have, to my knowledge.” Experts said a surface-to-air missile could have struck the aircraft if it had been descending, and that a bomb on board could not yet be ruled out, but technical or human error was more likely.
An Egyptian air traffic control official said the pilot told him in their last exchange that he had radio trouble, but Civil Aviation Minister Mohamed Hossam Kamal said communications had been “normal”.
“There was nothing abnormal… and the pilot didn’t ask to change the plane’s route,” he said.
Russia has a dismal air safety record, and while larger carriers have begun upgrading ageing fleets, the crash is likely to raise concerns about smaller airlines such as Kogalymavia. Kogalymavia defended pilot Valery Nemov, saying he had more than 12,000 flying hours logged, including 3,860 hours on the A-321. On Sunday, the Russian transportation watchdog, Rostransnadzor, ordered Kogalymavia to perform a full check on its A-321s. Kogalymavia confirmed the instructions but denied this amounted to a de facto grounding of its remaining fleet of six A-321 airliners.
The last major air crash in Egypt was in 2004, when a Flash Airlines Boeing 737 plunged into the Red Sea after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all 148 people on board. – Agencies