Wednesday 18 September 2019

'Evidence now suggests Isil put bomb on Russian plane'

Nina Lushchenko's nephew Pavel and daughter Veronika react at her grave, after her funeral at a cemetery in the village of Sitnya, 80 km (about 50 miles) of Veliky Novgorod, Russia.
Nina Lushchenko's nephew Pavel and daughter Veronika react at her grave, after her funeral at a cemetery in the village of Sitnya, 80 km (about 50 miles) of Veliky Novgorod, Russia.

Alexander Winning in St Petersburg

The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee in Washington last night revealed that the evidence so far points to an Isil bomb attack on the Russian passenger plane that crashed in Egypt.

However, Michael McCaul also acknowledged another theory - that the plane's tail had been worked on several years ago and may have broken off or otherwise failed - had not been ruled out.

"But I think the more likely scenario where all indicators seem to be pointing, is that this was an Isis attack with an explosive device in the airplane," McCaul told Fox News, using a common acronym for the militant group.

Mr McCaul was asked if the crash could be linked to a call this week by al-Qa'ida leader Ayman al-Zawahri for Islamic militants to unite to fight Russia and the West in Syria and Iraq. McCaul noted it was Isil, not al-Qa'ida, that claimed credit for Saturday's plane downing, which killed 224 people.

"I think this possibly could have been in the works for quite some time though, in terms of plotting," Mr McCaul said. "And the other question is, how did this thing get on the airplane?"

Mr McCaul said if Isil militants were behind the attack, it should cause Russia to rethink its focus in Syria and use its weapons against the militant group rather than to support President Bashar al-Assad. He also called for tougher US efforts against the militant group.

"I think that we need to step up this war on terror against Isis because if it's a Russian airline today it could be an American airline tomorrow," Mr McCaul said.

Yesterday Russia began burying some of those killed.

In St Petersburg, the intended destination of the doomed Metrojet Airbus A321, friends and loved ones bade farewell to 31-year-old Alexei Alexeyev, an employee of a heating and ventilation equipment company, who had been returning from a holiday in Sharm al-Sheikh.

One of the 224 people killed when the Russian-operated plane crashed into Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, friends said he and a colleague had been given the trip to Egypt as a reward for their efforts at work. Yesterday, they watched as he was buried in a quiet ceremony in Bogoslovskoye Cemetery to the northeast of St Petersburg.

"The investigation cannot return him, but we need to find out what happened so that the same doesn't happen to others," Yulia Vinogradova, Alexeyev's cousin, told a reporter at the funeral. She said she did not know which of the crash theories to believe.

The British government has said it suspects an Islamist bomb plot and grounded flights to the airport. A source close to the investigation has said a technical fault could have caused a mid-air explosion.

The Kremlin, which launched a campaign of air strikes against Islamist militants in Syria on September 30, has said everyone needs to wait for the official investigation. The findings could affect public opinion, which so far has been strongly behind the Syrian campaign.

A Levada opinion poll published at the end of October showed 53pc of Russians approved of their government's Syria policy, while a similar poll carried out earlier that same month by state pollster Vtsiom found that 84pc of Russians backed Vladimir Putin's decision to launch air strikes there.

If investigators conclude the plane was brought down by a bomb planted by Islamists, Russian public opinion could either harden or support could begin to ebb away.

Yesterday's funeral underlined the risks for the Kremlin.

On St Petersburg's sweeping Palace Square, onto which the Winter Palace faces, stacks of flowers and children's toys to commemorate the victims were piling up around a central monument.

Visitors had left poems as well as messages of support to loved ones. Among them someone had pinned a note marking the passing of Alexeyev.

"In sacred memory," it read. "The criminals should answer for this. The reason (for his death) is the war in Syria."

Some said they had never been convinced of Russia's Syria intervention in the first place.

"The operation in Syria has always been in question for me," said Denis, a doctor, standing among the crowds. "That hasn't changed."

Irish Independent

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