Friday 24 February 2017

Russian plane crash: Vladimir Putin agrees to suspend flights to Egypt from Russia

Airport from which doomed Metrojet Airbus A321 departed has been criticised for its 'lax security'

Pól O'Conghaile and Geraldine Gittens

British tourists leave after finishing their holidays, at the airport of the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Photo: REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih
British tourists leave after finishing their holidays, at the airport of the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Photo: REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih
Russian tourists arrive to start their vacations at the airport of the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt November 6, 2015. The head of Russia's Tour Operators' Association says there has been a drop in sales for Egypt holidays after a Russian-operated airliner crashed in Sinai, but says many are still willing to travel. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

Vladimir Putin has agreed to suspend all Russian flights to Egypt after a recommendation by his intelligence chief for a halt until the cause of last week's crash is determined.

The suspension comes after several days of statements by British and American officials that it was possible a bomb on board had brought down the Russia carrier Metrojet's Airbus A321-200, which crashed 23 minutes after take-off from the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all 224 people on board.

Russian and Egyptian officials had bristled at the statements, saying it was too soon to tell the cause.

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

Russian chief of intelligence Alexander Bortnikov said: "I think it will be reasonable to suspend all Russian flights to Egypt until we determine the real reasons of what happened.

"It concerns tourist flights most of all."

Russia's emergency situations minister, Vladimir Puchkov, said wreckage from the plane has been brought to Moscow for tests.

"These are necessary samples from all parts where traces of explosives could be. All of these samples have been delivered to Moscow, and we are studying them," Mr Puchkov said.

Meanwhile, Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs has confirmed that it is now advising Irish citizens to avoid all non-essential travel to Egypt, including the Red Sea holiday resort of Sharm El Sheikh.

Sharm had until yesterday remained on a list of exceptions including Luxor, Aswan and other Red Sea resorts outside the Sinai peninsula, but has now been removed from that list.

Its advice differs to that issued by the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office, which is advising against all but essential travel by air to or from Sharm el Sheikh, but has not raised the threat level in the resort itself.

Egypt's Ambassador to Ireland, Soha Gendi told RTE’s Sean O’Rourke today that she disagreed with the decision.

“I am very concerned about this decision. This decision had been already taken by an assumption. With all due respects to the decision that has been made, the investigation is still going on.”

“We have already an Irish team of experts and investigators that have joined the Egyptian investigatiors to come up with the truth, so we should have already stayed until the end of the investigation to come up with the informed decision according to evidence that came out of that investigation.”

“I have to assure you that the security measurements that are taken in the SS are of the highest stands in the world because of the huge numbers of tourists and the numbers of Egyptian people [coming through]. This is a tourist destination.”

Meanwhile, holidaymakers at Sharm el Sheikh airport can reportedly jump security check queues and baggage checks after a simple payment of £20 (€27.95).

The airport, from which the doomed Metrojet Airbus A321 departed on October 31, has been criticised for its 'lax security'.

Dale Parkyn told Sky News he was shocked at the length of queues at the Egyptian resort airport last year and was approached by a security guard who advised Mr Parkyn and his partner they could avoid the wait by paying a fee.

Read more: Sharm El Sheikh Q&A: What's happening at the Egyptian resort today?

People gathered to lay flowers in memory of the plane crash victims at Dvortsovaya (Palace) Square in St.Petersburg, Russia, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
People gathered to lay flowers in memory of the plane crash victims at Dvortsovaya (Palace) Square in St.Petersburg, Russia, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
People gathered to lay flowers in memory of the plane crash victims at Dvortsovaya (Palace) Square in St.Petersburg, Russia, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
People mourn during a religious service in memory of the plane crash victims in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
An Orthodox priest conducts an improvised religious service in memory of the plane crash victims in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
People gather to place floral tributes at the foot of the Alexander Column at Dvortsovaya (Palace) Square in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
People gathered to lay flowers in memory of the plane crash victims at Dvortsovaya (Palace) Square in St.Petersburg, Russia, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
People react as they come to lay flowers in memory of the plane crash victims at Dvortsovaya (Palace) Square in St.Petersburg, Russia, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015.(AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
A couple stands next to flowers and toys at an entrance of Pulkovo airport outside St. Petersburg, Russia, during a day of national mourning for the victims of Saturday's plane crash over Egypt Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Portraits of two plane crash victims Natalia Soldatulina and Alexandra Pilip are placed near flowers and toys at an entrance of Pulkovo airport outside St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
A woman with her baby reacts as she stands near to floral tributes for the victims of a plane crash, at an entrance of Pulkovo airport outside St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
A woman mourns as people gather at Dvortsovaya Square to commemorate victims of the air crash in Egypt in St. Petersburg, Russia, November 3, 2015. REUTERS/Peter Kovalev
People light a candle as they arrive at Dvortsovaya Square to commemorate victims of the air crash in Egypt in St. Petersburg, Russia, November 3, 2015. REUTERS/Peter Kovalev
People gather at Dvortsovaya Square to commemorate victims of the air crash in Egypt in St. Petersburg, Russia, November 3, 2015. REUTERS/Peter Kovalev
People gather at Dvortsovaya Square to commemorate victims of the air crash in Egypt in St. Petersburg, Russia, November 3, 2015. REUTERS/Peter Kovalev

Parkyn (47) was led past the queues and security gates unchecked, before boarding their flight to the UK.

He described the airport as having a 'big military presence'.

"We'd seen all these personnel carriers and all these people from the Army there, and a guy approached me, sort of slid up to the side of me, who seemed to have a bullet-proof ballistics vest on, covered up with a jumper. He just said 'would you like to avoid these queues?'

"What we did is we discussed it and he then produced a £20 note and said 'have you one of these' and you can avoid the queue," Mr Parkyn said.

"At no point did my luggage go through any scanner. When I think now it was bizarre.

"At the time it was quite amusing that for us, for £20, we'd avoided all the queues.

"It was only after listening to the news last night that I realised the gravity of what potentially could have happened."

Meanwhile, rescue flights for British holidaymakers stranded in Sharm el-Sheikh "have been suspended by the Egyptian authorities", easyJet said today.

It now appears more and more likely that an explosion brought down Metrojet flight 9268. 

In the immediate aftermath of the crash on Saturday which killed 224 people, there was scepticism over the Islamic State’s claim that it was responsible for the disaster.

Read more: Bomb by Islamic State 'most likely' caused Russian plane crash - security sources

But the view changed after British spies intercepted messages showing that ISIL extremists had been planning a major attack in the region.

Then UK Prime Minister David Cameron said it was “more likely than not” that a bomb brought the plane down.

President Barack Obama said the US was “taking very seriously” suggestions that a bomb was used to down the Airbus.

Now the focus is shifting onto the state of security at Sharm el-Sheikh airport.

Egypt did sign the Chicago Treaty, drawn up by the International Civil Aviation Organisation to meet global security standards.

But there is some scepticism over how effective security really is at the airport.

One theory is that the bomb could have been smuggled onto the aircraft by a baggage handler.

Staff at Sharm el-Sheikh are not subject the stringent security checks which are in force at UK airports.

The latest reports coming out of Sharm el-Sheikh airport are somewhat alarming as British holidaymakers have said that they were invited to sidestep baggage checks for as little as £20.

Furthermore, a day after Islamist militants claimed responsibility for downing the Russian plane, two men cleared the fence at another Red Sea airport, in the resort of Hurghada, and were arrested before they reached the runway, a judicial source said.

The source said the youths were criminals planning a robbery but some local media had earlier reported that the men had reached an airplane bound for Spain in the hope of stowing away under the wheels to start new lives in Europe.

"How did two youths who were not travelling, without passports, without visas, with nothing, get to the airplane?" asked Amr Abdelhamid, presenter of a current affairs programme on private television channel TEN.

In another incident in April, a donkey was found wandering around the carpark at Cairo airport and was captured on a video that went viral, with Egyptians tweeting sarcastic comments hashtagged in Arabic "how did the donkey enter the airport?"

"He thought and thought and exploited a security loophole," one person tweeted, mocking what they said was the official explanation for the breach, also carried in newspapers.

Though Egyptians made light of these incidents with their typically caustic humour, they underscored the widely-held view that standards are low and the potential for corruption high in poorly-paid public sector jobs including travel security.

The UK Government suspended air links on Wednesday amid fears a bomb was used to down a Russian passenger plane in Egypt, killing 224 people.

Meanwhile,  Washington is expected to call for tighter security at all airports with direct flights to the US.

Read more: At least 170 Irish people currently in Egypt amid terrorism fears and travel clampdown

According to ABC News there may even be an announcement by the weekend, although the Department of Homeland Security declined to be drawn.

The Obama administration has been keen to tighten up security for some time, largely as part of an effort to prevent foreign terrorists getting into the US.

In September last year Jeh Johnson, the Homeland Security Secretary, said he wanted to place American immigration officials at overseas airports to prevent potential security risks from boarding flights to the US

"I regard it as a homeland security imperative to build more. To use a football metaphor, I’d much rather defend our end-zone from the 50-yard line than from our one-yard line.

“I want to take every opportunity we have to expand homeland security beyond our borders."

Since then agreement has been reached with Manchester Airport for passengers to be precleared before flying across the Atlantic.

Exploratory talks have also begun over a similar initiative at Heathrow.

Flights to repatriate UK tourists from Sharm el Sheikh will begin today, with passengers only allowed to bring hand luggage.

Reuters

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