Moscow: In an abrupt turnaround, Russia suspended all passenger flights to Egypt after days of resisting US 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 US 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 US 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 yesterday, 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 yesterday 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.