Sinai plane crash: Russia suspends flights to Egypt as British tourists left stranded

Security has been bolstered at Sharm el-Sheikh after British and US leaders suggest a bomb may have caused the tragedy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 6:07pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 November, 2015, 1:29am

Russian President Vladimir Putin has agreed to a recommendation to suspend all Russian flights to Egypt. He has also ordered the Russian government to draft a mechanism for getting its citizens back from Egypt.

The head of the Russian intelligence agency FSB says it would be “reasonable” to suspend all Russian flights to Egypt pending the results of a probe into the cause of Saturday’s crash of a Russian plane in the Sinai Peninsula.

Russian news agencies on Friday quoted Alexander Bortnikov as saying that investigators should take their time in establishing the cause of the crash. Bortnikov did not provide a timeline for the suggested suspension of flights but said it should cover all tourist flights.

The suspension, covering all of Egypt, is even more sweeping than that imposed by Britain, which had halted flights to Sharm el-Sheikh only.

Budget airline easyJet says two flights have taken off from Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh airport and are en route to London, carrying 359 vacationers who had been stranded at the Red Sea resort after British authorities grounded flights. 

Earlier, the airline said Egyptian authorities had suspended British airlines from flying into the Sharm al-Sheikh, meaning that many of the flights planned to repatriate British tourists from the resort would no longer be able to operate.

EasyJet said that two aircraft which had already arrived in Sharm would be able to depart, but its other eight planned flights would not be able to operate.

The measures follow the crash last Saturday of Metrojet’s Airbus A321-200 that killed all 224 people on board. The plane crashed 23 minutes after take-off from Sharm el-Sheikh en route to St. Petersburg, with mostly Russian tourists aboard.

Russia and Egypt have dismissed Western suggestions that a bomb may have caused the crash, saying the speculation was a rush to judgment and insisting the investigation must run its course. The United States and British leaders have stopped short of a categorical assignment of blame in the crash, but Prime Minister David Cameron said on Thursday it was “more likely than not” that the cause was a bomb.

Watch: Britain's prime minister says "more likely than not" that a bomb downed Russian jet

The crash prompted companies to ground flights from and to the Red Sea resort, stranding thousands of tourists this week.

Before Egypt’s decision to suspend all flights from the resort on Friday, EasyJet had said it would run nine flights from the Red Sea airport to London and one to Milan, while Monarch would have two scheduled flights and three additional flights. Neither carrier was operating passenger flights from the UK to Sharm el-Sheikh.

On Friday morning, dozens of buses waited outside the Sharm el-Sheikh airport, the line stretching up to a kilometre as police inspected each vehicle, ferrying mostly Russian and British tourists to the airport.

Britain had said that additional security measures would be in place, including only allowing passengers to carry hand baggage, while checked luggage would be transported separately. The carry-on measure applied only to those departing from Sharm el-Sheikh, British officials said.

Inside the crowded airport, British tourists said on Friday they were just anxious to get home.

“We were in the first flights that were cancelled Wednesday night, we were already queuing to board,” said Amy Johnson, a 27-year-old British administrative assistant hoping to catch one of Friday's EasyJet flights out of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Standing in a crush of hundreds waiting to pass through security, Johnson said she didn't feel that British authorities had adequately supported the stranded tourists. “We’re being left to deal with this ourselves.”

Another tourist, Terrance Mathurian, a British builder travelling with his family, said they were told by hotel staff in the morning to head to the airport, following conflicting information. Looking at the long security line, he said that he “can understand why they have this situation here but personally, we’ve had no problems at all”.

In an unusual decision, Dutch carrier KLM said it had instructed its passengers leaving from the Egyptian capital of Cairo that they could only take hand luggage on the plane departing on Friday. A statement on KLM’s website said the measure was “based on national and international information and out of precaution”.

There were no further details and it was unclear why such measures would be imposed at the Cairo airport. KLM, which has no direct flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, did not elaborate on what their measure was based and nothing had been revealed so far from the ongoing investigation.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama said the US was taking “very seriously” the possibility that a bomb brought down the plane.

The Islamic State group, which has not generally pursued “spectacular” attacks outside its base in Syria, 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.

Additional reporting by Reuters