UK and US analysts suggest Russian jet may have been brought down by bomb planted by Islamic State’s local Sinai affiliate
Britain has suspended flights to and from the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh indefinitely.
British and US officials said on Wednesday they have information suggesting the Russian jetliner that crashed in the Egyptian desert may have been brought down by a bomb, and Britain said it was suspending flights to and from the Sinai Peninsula indefinitely.
Intercepted communications played a role in the tentative conclusion that the Islamic State group’s Sinai affiliate planted an explosive device on the plane, said a US official briefed on the matter. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorised to discuss intelligence matters publicly.
The official and others said there had been no formal judgement rendered by the CIA or other intelligence agencies, and that forensic evidence from the blast site, including the airplane’s black box, was still being analysed.
Read more: 'External factors' blamed for Sinai crash as theories fly, but the truth remains elusive while Russians mourn victims in St Petersburg
The official added that intelligence analysts don’t believe the operation was ordered by Islamic State leaders in Raqqa, Syria. Rather, they believe that if it was a bomb, it was planned and executed by the Islamic State’s affiliate in the Sinai, which operates autonomously.
Other officials cautioned that intercepted communications can sometimes be misleading and that it’s possible the evidence will add up to a conclusion that there was no bomb.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said there was a “significant possibility” the crash was caused by a bomb, and Britain was suspending flights to and from the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh indefinitely.
After a meeting of the British government’s crisis committee, Cobra, Hammond said Britain was advising its citizens not to go on vacation to Sharm el-Sheikh, which is visited by hundreds of thousands of Britons a year.
Meanwhile, Russian and Egyptian investigators said on Wednesday that the cockpit voice recorder of the Metrojet Airbus 321-200 had suffered substantial damage in the weekend crash that killed 224 people. Information from the flight data recorder has been successfully copied and handed over to investigators, the Russians added.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said British aviation experts had been sent to Sharm el-Sheikh, where the flight originated, to assess security before British flights there would be allowed to resume.
Several British flights due to leave Sharm el-Sheikh for the UK on Wednesday were grounded, leaving hundreds of tourists stranded.
Cameron’s 10 Downing St. office said late on Wednesday that the team’s preliminary report “noted that the Egyptian authorities had stepped up their efforts but that more remains to be done.”
Downing Steet said it could not say “categorically” why the Russian jet had crashed.
“But as more information has come to light, we have become concerned that the plane may well have been brought down by an explosive device,” it said.
Cameron had discussed the issue of security at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who flew to Britain on Wednesday for an official visit, Downing Street said.
The British disclosures were an embarrassment to el-Sissi, who had insisted in an interview with the BBC on Tuesday that the security situation in the Sinai Peninsula is under “full control”. He has staked his legitimacy on restoring stability and reviving Egypt’s economy.
The suspension of flights is a further blow to Egypt’s troubled tourism industry, which has suffered in the unrest that followed the 2011 Arab Spring. The one bright spot for Egypt has been tourism at the Red Sea resorts.