Russia ordered Friday a halt in flights to Egypt as concerns grew that a bomb downed a Russian plane that took off from the Sharm el-Sheikh resort, as British holidaymakers were being evacuated.
President Vladimir Putin called the halt to Russian flights in line with a recommendation from his security chief, the Kremlin said, although Moscow had downplayed reports that a bomb caused the crash Saturday.
Putin “ordered the government to work out mechanisms” to halt flights and to repatriate Russian citizens, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
At an emergency meeting, the head of Russia’s FSB security service, Alexander Bortnikov, said it would be prudent to halt flights for now.
“Until we have determined the true reasons for what happened, I consider it expedient to stop flights by Russian aviation to Egypt,” Bortnikov said.
With international concerns mounting, European airlines prepared to bring home thousands of tourists from the Red Sea resort, which has been a jewel in Egypt’s tourism crown.
A first flight finally took off for London’s Gatwick airport after a long delay, followed shortly by another plane headed for Britain.
But there were angry scenes at the airport as thousands of anxious Britons, who had also hoped to fly home, were sent back to their hotels after Egypt blocked several other repatriation flights.
British Ambassador John Casson was heckled as he announced the news.
“When are we going home?” shouted one Briton. “We don’t know what’s happening.”
Egyptian Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal said only eight of 29 flights would take off because the airport could not cope with all the luggage left behind.
In a sign of mounting fears about the security of baggage handling in Egypt, Dutch carrier KLM announced that it had banned check-in luggage on an early flight from Cairo, mirroring moves taken by several European airlines.
– Bomb scenario growing –
The Islamic State (IS) group has claimed responsibility for the disaster, in which the Saint Petersburg-bound jet crashed minutes after taking off. All 224 on board were killed, most of them Russian tourists.
Cairo has sought to downplay any suggestion of an attack.
But US President Barack Obama said: “I think there is a possibility that there was a bomb on board and we are taking that very seriously,” while emphasising it was too early to say for sure.
In London, where David Cameron hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi Thursday, the British prime minister told reporters it was “more likely than not that it was a terrorist bomb” that caused the crash.
And The Times newspaper reported Friday that electronic communications intercepted by British and US intelligence suggested a bomb may have been carried onto the plane.
Satellites uncovered chatter between militants in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Syria, it said.
“The tone and content of the messages convinced analysts that a bomb had been carried on board by a passenger or a member of the airport ground staff,” the newspaper reported, without giving a source.
Egypt’s foreign ministry told AFP the analysis of the black boxes and wreckage was still underway.
“Time should be given for the analysis. The minute that the analysis is ready it will be made public,” spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said.
Egypt had beefed up security at airports to “give confidence to the British government, but that does not mean we concur with any scenario,” he added.
Aviation Minister Kamal said there was “as yet no evidence or data confirming the theory” of an attack.
– Holidaymakers turned away –
There is no global or European blanket ban and some flights, including all Russian ones before Putin’s order Friday, have continued from the airport.
France and Belgium have warned citizens against travelling to Sharm el-Sheikh. and Britain has advised against all but essential travel by air to or from the resort.
The British government authorised flights to resume from the resort on Friday to bring home an estimated 20,000 British tourists.
But thousands were turned away after Egypt blocked British tour operators from flying in empty aircraft to make up the backlog.
Those passengers who did fly out were allowed to carry hand luggage only, with their check-in bags to follow separately.
Joining a string of airlines in avoiding Sharm el-Sheikh, the Lufthansa Group announced its subsidiary Eurowings would halt flights between Germany and the Red Sea resort, while Turkish Airlines also cancelled two flights.
If it was behind the attack, it would be the first time IS, which controls large areas of Syria and Iraq, has hit a passenger plane.
The incident has the potential to deeply damage Egypt’s tourism industry, still struggling to recover from a turbulent four years following its 2011 revolution.
After hearing Putin’s decision to halt flights, tourism workers in Sharm el-Sheikh reeled in shock at the possible blow to their livelihood.
“It has destroyed the homes,” of those working in the industry, said Ahmed Ghobashi, who works in a resort association to promote tourism.