Wednesday 28 September 2016

Terror fears after EgyptAir flight lost in Mediterranean

66 missing as minister says attack 'most likely cause'

Maggie Michael and Elena Becatoros

Published 20/05/2016 | 02:30

Distraught relatives of passengers on the missing jet arrive at Cairo airport. Photo: Reuters
Distraught relatives of passengers on the missing jet arrive at Cairo airport. Photo: Reuters

An EgyptAir flight from Paris to Cairo with 66 passengers and crew on board crashed into the Mediterranean Sea off the Greek island of Crete early yesterday morning, Egyptian and Greek officials said.

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Egypt's aviation minister said the crash was more likely to have been caused by a terror attack than by technical problems.

There were no immediate signs of any survivors but regardless of what caused the crash, the incident is likely to deepen Egypt's woes as the country struggles to revive its ailing economy, particularly the lucrative tourism sector that has been battered by the turmoil in which the country has been mired since a 2011 popular uprising.

The crash also renewed security concerns surrounding Egyptian planes and airports, and brought back still fresh memories of the horrific Russian passenger plane crash in Sinai last October, when all 224 people on board were killed.

Moscow has said the aircraft was brought down by an explosive device, and a local branch of the so-called Islamic State (Isil) has claimed responsibility for planting it.

Later yesterday, an Egyptian search plane located two orange items believed to be from the EgyptAir flight, 230 miles southeast of Crete.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

In Cairo, Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathi told a news conference that he did not want to prematurely draw conclusions, but that indications suggest a terror attack as the more likely cause of the crash.

"The possibility of having a different action or a terror attack is higher than the possibility of having a technical failure," Mr Fathi said, cautioning that the truth would not be known before the investigation is concluded.

Earlier, Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail also said a terror attack could not be ruled out. "We cannot rule anything out," Mr Ismail told reporters at Cairo airport.

Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos said the EgyptAir flight 804 made abrupt turns and suddenly lost altitude just before vanishing from radar at around 2.45am Egyptian time.

An EgyptAir jet takes off from Charles de Gaulle airport. Photo: Reuters
An EgyptAir jet takes off from Charles de Gaulle airport. Photo: Reuters

He said the aircraft was 10-15 miles inside the Egyptian Flight Information Region, and at an altitude of 37,000 feet. "It turned 90 degrees left and then a 360-degree turn toward the right, dropping from 38,000 to 15,000 feet and then it was lost at about 10,000 feet," Mr Kammenos added.

EgyptAir said the Airbus A320 vanished 10 miles (16km) after it entered Egyptian airspace, around 175 miles (280km) off Egypt's coastline north of the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. The carrier's account fits closely with an account from Konstantinos Lintzerakos, director of Greece's Civil Aviation Authority.

The airline said the Egyptian military had received an emergency signal from the aircraft, an apparent reference to an Emergency Locator Transmitter, a battery powered device designed to automatically give out a signal in the event of a sudden loss of altitude or impact.

The Egyptian military denied it had received a distress call and Egypt's state-run daily 'Al-Ahram' quoted an unidentified airport official as saying the pilot did not send one. The absence of a distress call suggests that whatever sent the aircraft plummeting into the Mediterranean was both sudden and brief.

Exploring the possibility of a terror attack, Egyptian security officials said they were running background checks on the passengers to see if any of them had links to extremists.

In Paris, the city's prosecutor's office has opened an investigation into the incident. "No hypothesis is favoured or ruled out at this stage," the prosecutor's office said in a statement.

Egypt's chief prosecutor, Nabil Sadeq, followed suit, ordering an "urgent" investigation into the crash.

Egyptian military aircraft and navy ships were taking part in a search operation off Egypt's Mediterranean coast to locate the debris of the plane, which was carrying 56 passengers, including one child and two babies, and 10 crew members. The pilot had more than 6,000 flight hours.

Greece also joined the search and rescue operation, officials at the Hellenic National Defence General Staff said.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault offered to send military planes and boats to join the Egyptian search for wreckage.

French President François Hollande held an emergency meeting at the Elysee Palace, and later spoke with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on the phone and agreed to "closely cooperate to establish as soon as possible the circumstances" surrounding the incident, according to a statement issued in Paris.

In Cairo, Mr el-Sissi convened an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, the country's highest security body. The council includes the prime minister and the defence, foreign and interior ministers, in addition to the chiefs of the intelligence agencies.

Sobbing

Those on board, according to EgyptAir, included 15 French passengers, 30 Egyptians, two Iraqis, one Briton, one Kuwaiti, one Saudi, one Sudanese, one Chadian, one Portuguese, one Belgian, one Algerian and one Canadian. Mr Ayrault confirmed that 15 French citizens were on board.

Around 15 relatives of passengers on board the missing flight arrived at Cairo airport yesterday morning. Airport authorities brought doctors to the scene after several distressed family members collapsed.

In Paris, relatives of passengers on the EgyptAir flight started arriving at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside the French capital.

A man and a woman, identified by airport staff as relatives of the flight's passengers, sat at an information desk near the EgyptAir counter at Charles de Gaulle Airport's Terminal 1.

The woman was sobbing, holding her face in a handkerchief. The pair were led away by police and airport staff and did not speak to gathered journalists.

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