MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin suspended all Russian flights to Egypt on Friday, pending the outcome of probes into last week’s deadly plane crash in the Sinai Peninsula as Moscow investigates whether a bomb is to blame.
The decision came at the suggestion of Russian intelligence chief Alexander Bortnikov, who said Russia should ground all flights to Egypt “until we know the true causes of the incident” that killed all 224 people aboard the Russian Metrojet airline flight on Saturday.
The move marks another huge blow to Egypt’s vital tourism industry amid a chaotic mass evacuation of Britons from the southern Sinai, and follows assertions by the United States and Britain that a bomb may have torn apart the Airbus 321 bound for St. Petersburg.
The suspicions were strengthened by French officials, cited anonymously by the magazine Le Point and France 2 television, who were quoted as saying the flight recorders carry the sound of an apparent explosion that is not believed linked to a malfunction or crew error. The investigation includes experts from France, where Airbus is based.
At a meeting of the National Anti-Terrorist Committee, Russian officials also said they had collected samples of the airplane body, luggage and soil from the crash site to test for any explosives residue.
The statements are the strongest sign yet that Russia is considering terrorism as a primary possible explanation in Russia’s deadliest aviation incident. It also appears to go further than some other nations, which have suspended flights only to the resort city of Sharm el-Sheik after the crash.
Russian officials had earlier rejected statements by President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron that a bomb may have caused the accident, and urged foreign officials to abstain from “speculation.”
“It means that they’re taking information about a possible attack very, very seriously,” Alexei Makarkin, vice president of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, said of the decision to suspend flights.
If a plot is involved, it could severely alter the public perception of the military campaign in Syria — which some believe could open Russia to increasing risks of retaliatory attacks from groups such as the Islamic State.
“It would be like going from a computer game into a terrifying reality,” Makarkin said.
But Makarkin predicted such as scenario would not hurt Putin’s soaring popularity. Instead, it could fuel calls for stepped up offensives in Syria, similar to the demands to strike back hard in Chechnya in the past decade after Islamist militants launched deadly raids in Moscow and elsewhere.
As part of the flight suspensions, Russia also said it would take steps to bring home Russians currently in Egypt.
Meanwhile, confusion reigned at the airport in Sharm el-Sheikh as Britain struggled to evacuate thousands of its citizens under emergency security rules.
Despite repeated assurances from British officials that the airlift would go ahead as planned, the low-cost carrier EasyJet announced Friday that “rescue plans that were put in place yesterday have been suspended by the Egyptian authorities.”
EasyJet later said two flights managed to leave Sharm el-Sheikh, but that eight had been suspended. Several other airlines, including Monarch, Thomas Cook and Thomson, said their flights also had been cancelled due to over-capacity at the airport. Passengers trying to reach Britain were advised wait for confirmation of a new flight — a process that could take days.
Egypt’s civil aviation ministry said that just eight of the 29 planned Britain-bound flights would depart from Sharm al-Sheikh Airport on Friday. It blamed the snags on limited runway and luggage storage capacities at the airport in the Red Sea resort even though many airlines canceled service after last week’s crash.
Passengers must leave their checked luggage behind for security reasons. As many as 20,000 Britons are believed to be in and around the resort, a popular destination for Europeans and an important link in Egypt’s tourism networks.
In London, a government statement stressed the “logistical complexities” of flying out thousands of people and predicted it would take significant time without giving specifics.
At the airport, passengers who had waited in long security lines to board their flights received text messages saying their returns to Britain had been placed on hold.
When the British ambassador to Egypt, John Casson, showed up, he was heckled by passengers. “What is the problem and when can we go home?” several shouted, according to the Guardian newspaper.
On Wednesday, Britain announced that it would suspend all flights in and out of Sharm el-Sheikh due to concerns about security at the airport. Several other European nations followed suit, and carriers including Dubai-based Emirates said it would shift flight paths from Sinai airspace.
The BBC reported Friday that the British decision to suspend flights in and out of Sharm el-Sheikh had been sparked by intelligence suggesting the Russian plane, an A320 series, was downed by a bomb that had been placed in the luggage compartment. The BBC said that intelligence was “based on intercepted communications between militants in the Sinai Peninsula.”
The BBC did not cite specific sources for the report, and British officials declined to comment.
The British prime minister Cameron, citing intelligence reports, said Thursday that a bomb “more likely than not” was the cause of the crash.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said Cameron and Putin had not discussed British evidence that last week’s plane crash was an act of terror.
Cameron “did not share that with us,” Peskov told journalists, discussing a phone call on Thursday between the two leaders. “We do not know which data our British colleagues are using.”
On Thursday, Obama and other senior Western officials had said that a bomb may have caused the Russian passenger jet to crash in Egypt last weekend, redoubling speculation about a terrorist attack despite heated protests from the governments of both Russia and Egypt.
In a radio interview with Seattle-based KIRO Radio, Obama said, “I think there is a possibility that there was a bomb on board and we’re taking that very seriously.”
“We’re going to spend a lot of time just making sure our own investigators and 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,” he said.
U.S. intelligence officials and key legislators echoed the president’s remarks but cautioned that while a bomb may have brought down the Russian plane, that cause has not been confirmed.
“There are certainly indications that it may have been an explosion, may have been a terrorist bomb on the aircraft, but it remains a possibility that it was a structural failure in the aircraft,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, speaking on MSNBC on Thursday. “And the intelligence community is not really at a point where it can confirm either hypothesis.”
Schiff also described as “very forward-leaning” remarks by British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond that a bomb is a “significant possibility.”
“I can only tell you our perspective here in the United States, which is we aren’t ready to confirm anything,” Schiff said.
Russia and Egypt have called for patience while an official investigation that also includes Germany, France and Ireland reviews the crash over the next several months.
Egypt is battling an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, and a bombing would undercut President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s claims that the situation is under control. Sissi was in London on Thursday for talks with Cameron.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State’s affiliate in Egypt has repeatedly asserted responsibility for the crash, which it called revenge for Russia’s intervention in the war in Syria.
Witte reported from London. Erin Cunningham and Heba Habib in Cairo, Karla Adam in London and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.