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Thursday 14 December 2017

Terrorism feared as cause of EgyptAir plane crash

The EgyptAir plane had taken off from Paris and was nearing its destination of Cairo at the time of the crash (AP)
The EgyptAir plane had taken off from Paris and was nearing its destination of Cairo at the time of the crash (AP)
The track displayed on Flightradar24 showing the EgyptAir aircraft travelling from Paris to Cairo
The Egyptair in-flight service building where relatives are being held at Cairo International Airport (AP)

An EgyptAir plane travelling from Paris to Cairo with 66 people on board swerved wildly in flight and crashed in the Mediterranean Sea, with some officials saying it may have been brought down by terrorists.

There are not believed to be any survivors of the crash of EgyptAir Flight 804, an Airbus A320 which went down halfway between the Greek island of Crete and Egypt's coastline.

Greek defence minister Panos Kammenos said the plane spun and suddenly lost altitude just before vanishing from radar screens around 2.45am Cairo time on Thursday.

He said it made a 90-degree left turn, then a full 360-degree turn towards the right, plummeting from 38,000ft to 15,000ft and then disappearing at about 10,000ft.

Several hours later, Egypt's Civil Aviation Ministry said life jackets, plastic items and other floating objects had been found in the area where the plane went down.

But a senior Greek air safety official later said the debris found so far did not come from an aircraft.

Athanassios Binis, head of Greece's Air Accident Investigation and Aviation Safety Board, told ERT TV that "an assessment of the finds showed that they do not belong to an aircraft", and that had been confirmed by Egyptian authorities.

Meanwhile, Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathi cautioned that the disaster is still under investigation but said the possibility it was a terror attack "is higher than the possibility of having a technical failure".

And Alexander Bortnikov, chief of Russia's top domestic security agency, went further, saying: "In all likelihood it was a terror attack."

The Egyptian military said it did not receive a distress call, and reports claimed the pilot did not send one. The absence of a distress call suggests that whatever sent the aircraft plummeting into the sea was sudden and brief.

The plane's erratic course raised a number of possibilities, including a catastrophic mechanical or structural failure, a bombing, or a struggle over the controls with a hijacker in the cockpit.

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

If it was terrorism, it was the second deadly attack involving Egypt's aviation industry in seven months.

Last October, a Russian passenger plane that took off from an Egyptian Red Sea resort crashed in the Sinai, killing all 224 people aboard. Russia said it was brought down by a bomb, and a local branch of the Islamic State claimed responsibility.

The disaster also raises questions about security at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, at a time when western Europe has been on high alert over the deadly Islamic extremist attacks in Paris and at the Brussels airport and subway over the past six months.

French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said airport security had been tightened considerably before the disaster, in particular because of the upcoming European football championship which France is hosting.

Retired US Air Force Maj Gen Robert Latiff, an expert on aerospace systems at the University of Notre Dame, said that while it is too early to tell for certain, an accidental structural failure aboard the highly reliable A320 is "vanishingly improbable".

He also cast doubt on the possibility of a struggle in the cockpit, saying the crew would have triggered an alarm.

Instead, he said, "sabotage is possible, and if there were lax controls at airports and loose hiring and security policies, increasingly likely".

Those on board, according to EgyptAir and various governments, 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 two Canadians. The passengers included two babies.

Egyptian military aircraft and ships are continuing to searched for debris and victims, joined by Greek, French and British authorities.

French President Francois Hollande held an emergency meeting at the Elysee Palace. He also spoke with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi by telephone and agreed to "closely co-operate to establish as soon as possible the circumstances" surrounding the disaster, according to a statement.

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

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

Press Association

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