Thursday 22 March 2018

Investigators probe cause of plane crash as hunt continues for bodies and debris

Families of victims of the EgyptAir plane crash attend prayers for the dead in Cairo (AP)
Families of victims of the EgyptAir plane crash attend prayers for the dead in Cairo (AP)

The hunt is continuing for bodies and debris from the EgyptAir plane that fell out of the sky over the Mediterranean Sea as investigators try to determine whether the disaster was the work of terrorists.

Search crews have found human remains, luggage and passenger seats from Flight 804, but Egypt's civil aviation minister has told relatives of victims there are no survivors, according to a newspaper report.

The daily Al-Masry Al-Youm said Sherif Fathi told the families that Egyptian armed forces are doing their best to locate the wreckage and personal belongings of the victims.

With no bodies to bury, relatives and friends of some of the 66 people on board held special prayers for the lost. Several mosques around Cairo held what is known as Salat al-Ghaib, Arabic for "prayers for the absent", held for the dead when there is no body.

Mystery remains over why the Airbus A320 - which had been cruising normally in clear skies on a night-time flight from Paris to the Egyptian capital early on Thursday - suddenly lurched left and then right and plummeted into the sea, never issuing a distress signal.

Egyptian authorities said they believe it may have been an act of terrorism, as have Russian officials and some aviation experts, but no hard evidence has emerged.

No militant group has claimed to have brought down the aircraft, in contrast to the downing of a Russian jet in October over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula that killed 224 people. In that case, Islamic State's branch in Sinai issued a claim of responsibility within hours.

A terror analyst who is in contact with members of IS and other jihadist groups said there have been "no credible or even semi-credible" claims of responsibility.

Shiraz Maher, at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, said IS released a 20-minute video on Thursday about its plans to conquer India, and added: "If they had been involved in the crash, it would be very odd for them to have sent that video rather than boasting of the crash."

Three European security officials said the passenger manifest for Flight 804 contained no names on terrorism watch lists. The manifest was leaked online and has not been verified by EgyptAir.

Egyptian security officials said they were running background checks on the passengers to see if any had links to extremists.

A French judicial official said investigators have begun to check and question all ground staff at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, who had either a direct or an indirect link to Flight 804 before it took off on Wednesday night.

Workers including baggage handlers, maintenance staff, gate agents, security guards and airline boarding employees all carry "red badges" that provide access to restricted areas of the airport.

The tragedy has fuelled suspicions of terrorism, especially in light of the bombing of the Russian plane and recent attacks in Paris and Brussels, but French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault insisted there is "absolutely no indication" of what caused the crash.

Some aviation experts have said the circumstances suggest a bomb blast, but add that answers will come only with examination of the wreckage and the plane's black box recorders, although retrieving them may take time. The water is 8,000ft to 10,000ft deep in the area where the airliner is thought to have gone down, roughly halfway between Egypt's coastal city of Alexandria and the Greek island of Crete.

The pilot, Mohammed Shoukair, was experienced by Egyptian standards, with 6,275 flying hours, and co-pilot Ahmed Assem had clocked 2,101 hours, officials said.

Friday brought the first confirmation of debris from the crash. The Egyptian army said it found debris around 180 miles north of Alexandria, and that it was searching for more. EgyptAir said luggage and seats were found, as well as body parts.

France, Greece, Italy, Cyprus and Britain have joined the search, which encompasses a wide area of the Med south of Crete. Investigators from Egypt, France and Britain as well from Airbus will examine everything found in the search, Egyptian officials said.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's office issued a statement expressing its condolences to relatives and its "deep regret and sadness for the victims".

"God give great mercy and host them in his heaven," it added.

Press Association

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