Vladimir Putin orders halt to all flights to Egyptian airports as evidence mounts that flight 9268 was brought down rather than suffering mechanical failure
The sound of an apparent explosion can be heard on the flight recorder of the Russian-operated plane that came down over the Sinai peninsula, killing all 224 people on board, adding to mounting evidence that a bomb was smuggled aboard, French media sources said on Friday.
Giving further credence to the idea that the plane crash was a terrorist act rather than because of structural failure, Russia, which for a week has been resistant to speculation about a bomb, suspended flights to all Egyptian airports.
An Egyptian-led international team of aviation experts, including some from France, successfully recovered the black box, the flight recorder, from the crash site.
Several French media outlets, including the television station France 2, reported that the investigators had listened to it and concluded that a bomb had detonated, which would seem to rule out structural failure or pilot error. The pilots can be heard chatting normally, including contact with airport controllers, up until the apparent explosion.
One source close to the investigation told AFP that the black box data “strongly favours” this theory. While another source reportedly said: “Everything was normal during the flight, absolutely normal, and suddenly there was nothing,” adding that the plane had suffered “a violent, sudden,” end.
A news conference is due to be held on Saturday afternoon by the Egyptian aviation minister, Hossam Kamal, and the head of the Egypt-led investigation into the disaster, although the government warned it could be delayed.
The reports about the black box contents came as British attempts to bring passengers home from Sharm el-Sheikh descended into chaos on Friday.
While Russia had earlier suggested that the UK was acting prematurely in halting flights to the Red Sea resort over terrorism fears, Vladimir Putin ordered even wider restrictions on Friday, including halting all flights from Cairo. The head of his federal security services said it would be expedient to suspend flights until they had discovered why the Airbus A321 had crashed last Saturday.
Meanwhile, the US announced new security measures – including tighter screening – for flights from some airports in the Middle East. Jeh Johnson, the homeland security secretary, said that the move was motivated by “an abundance of caution”. Russia initially dismissed claims by Islamic State of responsibility for downing the Metrojet flight, which came weeks after threats of retaliation for Russian planes bombing Syria, and Moscow reacted angrily after David Cameron said it was “more likely than not” a bomb.
Suspicions have intensified throughout the week that the Metrojet airliner was blown up, with French media reporting on Friday that an explosion was audible on the black box recordings. French experts from Airbus are part of the investigating team.
According to reports from the US, a “flash” from the plane was picked up by US satellites, pointing to an explosion. American officials have also told Reuters that intercepted intelligence “chatter” involving militant groups in Sinai supported the bomb theory. An Isis-affiliated group has claimed three times that it was responsible for bringing down the plane.
Russia will now begin to bring home its tourists, up to 79,000 of whom are currently on holiday in Egypt, according to Russian tourist authorities.
However, there were chaotic scenes at Sharm el-Sheikh airport on Friday as the schedule of “rescue flights” apparently agreed by airlines disintegrated. Thousands of travellers who had gone to the airport expecting to leave were further delayed. Eight easyJet flights were cancelled in the morning, while empty Monarch, Thomas Cook and Thomson airliners that had flown from Britain to bring back holidaymakers were diverted before reaching Egypt.
EasyJet claimed that Egyptian authorities were blocking their extra flights, as passengers were sent back to their hotels pending “top-level government talks” to resolve the situation. In extraordinary scenes at the airport, Britain’s ambassador to Cairo, John Casson, was heckled by passengers, who shouted: “What is the problem and when can we go home?”
Tour operators promised that stranded customers would remain in their accommodation free of charge or be reimbursed.
Egypt’s civil aviation ministry denied that it was blocking any flights, but said only eight of the 29 planned flights from Sharm el-Sheikh to the UK on Friday were operating because the airport did not have the capacity to store hold luggage. Only hand luggage is being allowed on flights back to Britain amid fears that a bomb was placed in the hold of the Metrojet plane.
Kamal, Egypt’s aviation minister, said: “The British airline [easyJet] wants to schedule 18 flights at the same time and wants to transport British passengers from Sharm el-Sheikh without their luggage, which we would have to transport later. This constitutes a huge burden on the airport because its capacity does not allow for that.”
Britain had expected that all passengers who were due to fly home this week before flights were cancelled over security fears – about 3,500 people – would have returned by Friday night. Patrick McLoughlin, the transport secretary, had told the BBC: “We feel that should be possible.” But as the day unfolded, a Downing Street spokesman said the situation was “very fluid … complicated and difficult”. He said a broken-down aircraft at the airport had contributed to delays on the ground.
The first 180 tourists to return to the UK arrived at Gatwick airport on an easyJet flight at 4.25pm, describing chaotic scenes before departure. They said the pilot had assured them that intelligence officials from MI5 and the Egyptian army had guarded their plane before takeoff to ensure its safety.
Some were in tears outside the arrivals area of Gatwick. Emma Turner, from Kent, said her husband had been hit by other tourists, whom she believed to be Russian, amid scuffles to get through the departure area in Egypt. “It was absolutely horrendous. We got hit twice in arrivals at Sharm going through security. They had one door open and we had children with us.”
Nicky Bull, from Bath, described the airport as “dreadful”, saying: “I appreciate all the extra security, but they just could not cope with it … everybody was getting crushed. Everybody was shouting and screaming.”
Another passenger, Nathan Hazelwood, said security at Sharm was shocking. “I think it’s a joke. We need a bit of a presence out there. I don’t think we should be flying out there at all. Security needs to be tightened.”
A further 179 passengers were on board a second easyJet plane that landed at 5.30pm at Luton. A number of the cancelled UK –bound flights were expected to operate on Saturday, while the hold luggage of returning British passengers would be transported on separate flights over the next 10 days.
While Egypt said the decision to cancel the majority of UK-bound flights on Friday was purely logistical, an easyJet spokesman suggested it was a political decision after Britain took a lead in restricting travel. Egypt has rejected claims that Isis carried out the attack and maintains there is nothing wrong with security at Sharm el-Sheikh airport.
The country stands to lose a large, critical source of income in the region if the tourist industry is in effect shut down because of terrorism fears.
Isis, which has not generally pursued major attacks outside its base in Syria, has claimed responsibility for bringing down the plane. The suspension of flights to and from Egypt is the first sign that Moscow is attaching credibility to the theory, but the Kremlin continued to insist there is no presumption of a bomb.
A spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said: “The decision of the president to suspend flights to Egypt does not mean that a terrorist attack is the main suspected cause of the catastrophe with [the airline] Kogalymavia.” He said Putin was not suspending flights to Egypt until the cause of the crash was identified, but only “until it is possible to establish the necessary safety level for air travel”.
Russian state television channels have largely shied away from discussing the possibility that a terrorist bomb or missile could have caused the crash, and politicians described the UK’s decision to cancel Egypt flights as “psychological pressure” on Russia over its airstrikes against Syrian rebels.
On Friday, a Downing Street spokesman said Britain’s curbs on flights to the Red Sea resort were not dependent on the possible causes of the Metrojet disaster. “The evidence we received suggested there was a credible threat with regard to Sharm el-Sheikh airport, which is why we have taken the actions we have.”
In 2014, about 1.9 million Russians visited Egypt, making it the second most popular holiday destination for Russians after Turkey. Although the number of Russians holidaying abroad has been falling since the rouble lost half its value in 2014, Egypt has remained popular, as operators have lowered prices for package tours there.
Vladimir Kaganer, the general director of the tourist agency Tez Tour, which said it had 10,000 clients in Egypt, claimed an evacuation order would be needed to bring Russian holidaymakers home.
“If people are at a resort and they come to them to say a plane was sent to take you back, they would say: ‘No, we want to be on holiday for two more weeks, we’re not going anywhere.’”
A third Russian government plane carrying victims’ remains and their personal belongings from Egypt returned to St Petersburg on Friday.