Russian passenger jet crashes killing 224
Russian passenger jet plummets from the skies over the Sinai Desert killing all 224 onboard
Two European airlines announced yesterday that they would no longer fly over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt after a Russian passenger plane crashed in the troubled area, killing all 224 people on board.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), whose terrorists are fighting the Egyptian army in Sinai, claimed responsibility. However, the Egyptian authorities said the pilot of the aircraft had reported a mechanical failure and had asked to land at the nearest airport. Experts cautioned it was too early to say what had caused the disaster.
Lufthansa and Air France said they would avoid Sinai airspace Sinai until it was established what had brought down Flight KGL9268, operated by Metrojet.
The Airbus A321 took off from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh at 5.51am local time, bound for St Petersburg, and disappeared from radar screens 23 minutes later while flying at 31,000ft. It is the worst aviation disaster in Egypt's history.
A statement purported to be from Isil said the "soldiers of the caliphate" had destroyed the plane and killed all the passengers "by the grace of Allah".
Of the 217 passengers and seven crew, 221 were Russian and three Ukrainian. Tearful families waiting at St Petersburg airport were taken to a hotel for counselling after news of the crash reached them. About three million Russians visit Egypt every year, mainly for the Red Sea resorts of the Sinai.
Among the passengers were 17 children and a newly married couple, Elena Rodina and Aleksander Krotov, both 33. Pictures of the dead began to emerge last night, including Alena Moiseeva, a five-year-old girl; Yury Shein with his daughter Anastasia; and two young women, Valeria Bogdanova and Anastasia Bogdanova.
Among the distraught relations who had been waiting at St Petersburg's Pulkovo airport was Ella Smirnova, 25, who said: "I am meeting my parents. I spoke to them last on the phone when they were already on the plane, and then I heard the news.
"I will keep hoping until the end that they are alive, but perhaps I will never see them again."
President Vladimir Putin declared a day of national mourning.
Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian foreign minister, telephoned his Russian counterpart to offer condolences and promised to "uncover the circumstances surrounding the incident, in full cooperation and co-ordination with the Russian side".
Egypt will lead the investigation with the help of Russian experts. Because the Airbus was made in Europe, the European Aviation Safety Agency will take part. The US National Transportation Safety Board will also be involved because the engines were manufactured in America. The "black box" flight recorder has been recovered.
An Egyptian official said the pilot had reported technical difficulties before losing contact with air traffic controllers. Ayman al-Muqadem, of the Aviation Incidents Committee, said the pilot had asked to divert to the nearest airport.
FlightRadar24, a flight tracking service based in Sweden, said the Metrojet Airbus had begun to descend rapidly at a rate of about 6,000ft per minute.
"It was climbing quite normally when, after 23 minutes, it passed 30,000ft and suddenly started to lose speed," said Mikail Robertson, of FlightRadar24. He said the plane "started to drop very fast", then "after about 20 seconds we lost the signal from this aircraft."
Isil's statement of responsibility was apparently supported by a YouTube video purporting to show a twin-engined airliner on fire. However, the Airbus was last recorded flying at 31,000ft and the shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles Isil is believed to possess are rarely effective above 10,000ft.
The Isil claim was met with scepticism by aviation and security experts alike.
"From what I have read, this seems to have happened not long after aircraft got to the top of its ascent to cruising altitude," said Captain Paul Wilson, a retired pilot and aviation expert.
"It's reported that the pilot had asked to land at the nearest airport, and the high rate of descent shows he was intent on doing just that.
The sorts of weapons these terrorists have would not be able to intercept aircraft at cruising altitude." Mr Wilson was adamant that flight data indicated that the pilot was attempting a controlled descent.
"Descending at that rate doesn't mean the aircraft was out of control," he said.
"The plane was too high for a shoulder-launched missile, but it was 2,000 feet lower than MH17," said David Learmount, a consulting editor with Flight Global. (Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed over eastern Ukraine in July last year after being hit by a Russian-made missile. All 283 passengers and 15 crew were killed.)
Maksim Sokolov, the Russian transport minister, dismissed Isil's claim, saying: "It can't be considered accurate". Nonetheless, Lufthansa and Air France have decided to avoid Sinai until the cause of the crash is clear.
A spokesman for Lufthansa said: "We took the decision to avoid the area because the situation and the reasons for the crash were not clear."
British Airways said it would continue to fly over Sinai. "The safety and security of our customers and crew is always our top priority, and we would never operate a flight unless it was safe to do so," said a BA spokesman.
"Our safety team continually liaises with the appropriate authorities around the world, and we conduct very detailed risk assessments into every route we operate."
Thomas Cook, which operates 13 flights a week to Sharm el-Sheikh, said it would continue to serve the destination. "Over the weekend, the airline operated its two daily flights as normal," said a spokesman.
Russian investigators yesterday raided the Moscow office of Metrojet, the airliner which operated the flight. Metrojet has a fleet of seven planes serving 12 international destinations.
The aircraft which crashed was built by Airbus in 1997 and flown by Metrojet from 2012. It had recorded more than 56,000 flying hours during nearly 21,000 flights.
Egypt's army has been fighting an Islamist insurgency in Sinai, where Isil has established a strong presence.