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Putin Halts Russian Flights to Egypt

by Ken Bredemeier, Heather Murdock November 06, 2015

Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended all of his country's commercial flights to Egypt Friday as new evidence emerged suggesting that a bomb could have brought down the Russian jetliner that crashed into the Sinai Peninsula last weekend, killing all 224 people aboard.

The Russian leader acted quickly after the chief of the country's FSB security service, Alexander Bortnikov, recommended the halt in flights 'until we have determined the true reasons' for last Saturday's crash.

Russia had for days dismissed as speculative pointed suggestions by U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron that Islamic State insurgents planted a bomb aboard the Metrojet A-321 flight from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin ordered the government to work out details of how to repatriate Russians who are currently vacationing at the resort along the Red Sea, a favorite holiday destination for many Europeans.

'Sound of an explosion' detected

A French television network reported that one investigator who has had access to the black boxes recovered from the wreckage said 'the sound of an explosion can be distinctly heard during the flight.'

The French news agency quoted one investigator as saying that the plane sustained 'a violent, sudden' end. The investigator said that 'everything was normal during the flight, absolutely normal, and suddenly there was nothing.'

After the crash last Saturday, a shaky video appeared online of a plane blowing up in the air. The video said it was made by Wilayet Sinai, an Islamic State affiliate in Egypt, and it claimed responsibility for the attack.

Many people thought the video and the brief written and audio statement that were also released that day were fake, and that militants were trying to claim credit for an accident to make them look strong. Normally, when Islamic State militants – also know as Daesh, an Arabic pejorative – claim responsibility for an attack, they release Hollywood-style videos or fire-and-brimstone speeches.

"It wasn't as fancy or as flashy as usually Daesh covers these types of things," said Ziad Akl, a senior researcher at the Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin ordered the government to work out details of how to repatriate 30,000 to 40,000 Russians who are currently vacationing at the resort along the Red Sea, a favorite holiday destination for many Europeans.

British flights cancelled

British vacationers encountered long delays in leaving Sharm el-Sheikh Friday, with the budget airline easyJet only making two flights to London and canceling seven others.

No explanation was given, with the airline saying Egyptian authorities had blocked the additional flights. But the British ambassador denied that Egypt had curtailed the planned departure of hundreds of Britons and pleaded with angry travelers for patience.

British authorities forced the 359 travelers who left Sharm el-Sheikh on the two flights to leave most of their luggage behind, except for carry-on bags, so that thorough searches of it could be conducted before it is transported on separate flights.

Russia joins numerous other European national carriers that have blocked flights to the Sinai resort in the days after the Russian jetliner plummeted into the desert. Belgium on Friday recommended 'heightened vigilance' for any of its citizens traveling to Egypt and that they not go to Sharm el-Sheikh.

Also Friday, international airlines began prohibiting checked luggage on some flights out of the capital, Cairo.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines said in a statement only carry-on bags will be permitted on its Friday flight from Cairo to Amsterdam. It did not say how long the policy would be in effect, but noted the move was 'based on national and international information and out of precaution.'

Transavia, a budget airline owned by KLM and Air France, announced later Friday it was following the Dutch airline's lead, saying that 'holidaymakers may only take hand luggage' on trips leaving Egypt.

​​Obama: 'possibility' bomb downed plane

On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama said 'there is a possibility' that a bomb destroyed the Russian jetliner.

'We're going to spend a lot of time just making sure our own investigators and our own intelligence community find out what's going on before we make any definitive pronouncements. But it's certainly possible that there was a bomb on board,' Obama told KIRO radio in Seattle.

British Prime Minister David Cameron also says it is 'more likely than not' the plane was bombed.

Cameron met in London Thursday with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who, along with the Russians, say any theory that there was a bomb on the plane is nothing more than speculation.

​​Crash details

The Russian Metrojet flight went down 23 minutes after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh on its way to St. Petersburg Saturday.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for attacking the jet. It has yet to offer any evidence to back it up.

But a U.S. official has said intercepted communications point to the extremists and that someone inside the Sharm el-Sheikh airport helped plant the bomb.

Sissi has dismissed Islamic State's claim as nothing but propaganda aimed at damaging Egyptian stability and security. Any confirmation of terrorist involvement in the plane crash could further damage Egypt's crumbling but vital tourist industry.

Experts are examining the wreckage for any signs of terrorism. Some reports say forensic examinations have revealed shrapnel in some of the victims. The experts have retrieved both black box recorders.

Ken Bredemeier and William Gallo contributed to this report in Washington.

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