Wednesday 18 Nov 2015
The Kremlin said for the first time on Tuesday that a bomb had ripped apart a Russian passenger jet over Egypt last month and promised to hunt down those responsible and intensify its air strikes on Islamist militants in Syria in response.
Until Tuesday, Russia had played down assertions from Western countries that the crash, in which 224 people were killed on Oct. 31, was a terrorist incident, saying it was important to let the official investigation run its course.
But in a late night Kremlin meeting on Monday three days after Islamist gunmen and bombers killed 129 people in Paris, Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia's FSB security service, told a meeting chaired by President Vladimir Putin that traces of foreign-made explosive had been found on fragments of the downed plane and on passengers' personal belongings.
"According to an analysis by our specialists, a homemade bomb containing up to 1 kilogram of TNT detonated during the flight, causing the plane to break up in mid air, which explains why parts of the fuselage were spread over such a large distance," said Bortnikov.
"We can unequivocally say it was a terrorist act," Bortnikov said in footage that was not released until Tuesday morning. Putin responded by saying the incident was one of the bloodiest acts in modern Russian history and ordered the Russian air force to intensify its air strikes in Syria in response.
"It (our campaign) must be intensified in such a way that the criminals understand that retribution is inevitable," said Putin.
Ordering the country's secret service to hunt down those responsible for blowing up the plane, he said the effort to bring them to justice should be exhaustive.
"We will search for them everywhere wherever they are hiding. We will find them anywhere on the planet and punish them," Putin said.
(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova, Vladimir Soldatkin, Andrew Osborn; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe)
Tuesday 17 Nov 2015
Egyptian authorities have detained two employees of Sharm al-Sheikh airport in connection with the downing of a Russian jet on Oct. 31 that killed all 224 people on board, two security officials said on Tuesday.
"Seventeen people are being held, two of them are suspected of helping whoever planted the bomb on the plane at Sharm al-Sheikh airport," one of the officials said.
Russia's FSB security service said on Tuesday it was certain a bomb had brought down the plane, joining Britain and the United States in reaching that conclusion.
Egypt has not yet confirmed that a bomb was responsible, saying it wants to wait until all investigations are complete.
It was not immediately clear what role the employees had at the airport, which is Egypt's third-busiest, handling a vast number of charter and budget flights for tourists seeking sea and sun in the southern Sinai peninsula.
Since the disaster, many flights to and from Sharm al-Sheikh have been suspended, raising concerns that Egypt's tourism industry, worth about $7 billion a year and still a pillar of the economy despite having fallen sharply in recent years, will be further ravaged.
Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia's FSB, said the conclusion of Russian investigators was that a homemade bomb containing around 1 kg (2 lbs) of TNT had detonated during the flight, causing the plane to break up in mid-air.
"We can unequivocally say it was a terrorist act," he said. Egyptian ministers, led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, were meeting in Sharm al-Sheikh on Tuesday, with a news conference expected later in the day.
(Reporting by Cairo bureau; writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Michael Georgy and Kevin Liffey)
Tuesday 10 Nov 2015
A growing international chorus has backed the theory that the Metrojet A-321 plane was downed in a terrorist attack over Egypt.
Moscow has acknowledged for the first time a terrorist attack could have caused last month's Russian plane crash in Egypt, as thousands more tourists were evacuated from the country.
Britain and the US, as well as international investigators, suspect a bomb exploded on board the Metrojet A-321 plane, but Egyptian officials insist there is no evidence yet of an attack on the aircraft which jihadists claim to have downed.
Russia had also previously refrained from blaming the crash, which killed all 224 people on board, on terrorists until Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's admission.
"The possibility of an act of terror is of course there as the reason for what happened," Medvedev said in an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta state newspaper.
A growing international chorus has backed the theory that the plane was downed in an attack, with British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond saying Monday it was "more likely than not" that the plane was downed by an "explosive device placed on board".
On Monday, Israel - which has strong intelligence links to neighbouring Sinai where the Airbus came down while en route from Egypt's resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to Saint Petersburg - joined in.
Sunday 8 Nov 2015
Russia has returned 11,000 Russian tourists from Egypt in the last 24 hours, RIA news agency reported on Sunday, citing Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich.
More people are expected to be brought back on Sunday, he was quoted as saying.
Around 80,000 Russians were stranded in Egypt after the Kremlin had grounded all flights to the country on Friday following the crash of a Russian airliner in the Sinai Peninsula.
Saturday 7 Nov 2015
President Vladimir Putin has ordered the suspension of all Russian passenger flights to Egypt until the cause of a deadly plane crash at the weekend is established.
Putin's decision was a response to the crash of an Airbus A321 operated by a Russian carrier last Saturday over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. All 224 people on board were killed.
The move, which follows decisions by Britain and others to suspend flights to and from Sharm al-Sheikh - the Egyptian resort where the downed Russian airliner originated - may be the first sign that Moscow is attaching credibility to the theory that Islamist militants somehow planted a bomb on the aircraft.
However, the Kremlin on Friday said the decision did not mean the crash was caused by a terrorist attack.
The Kremlin has said it is too early to say what caused the crash and that all theories, including the possibility of technical failure, should be examined by the official investigation.
Egypt has also said it is too early to conclude a blast brought down the plane.
Putin acted after Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia's FSB security service, recommended that Russia suspend all passenger flights to Egypt until it knew exactly what caused the crash.
"The head of state agreed with these recommendations," Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
He said the government would find a way to bring Russians back home and would open talks with Egyptian authorities to guarantee flight safety.
A Sinai-based group affiliated with Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the crash, which, if confirmed, would make it the jihadist organisation's first attack on civil aviation.
Britain has said a bomb planted by an Islamic State affiliate may have caused the jet to crash and also suspended regular flights to Sharm amid concerns over airport security.
Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands also suspended flights to the resort.
British attempts to bring home thousands of stranded tourists were thrown into chaos on Friday when Egypt reduced the number of flights it would allow to take them home.
Egypt's Minister of Civil Aviation, Hossam Kamal, said the operation to bring large numbers of British holidaymakers from their hotels to the airport and then put them on flights without their luggage was "a huge burden on the airport because its capacity does not allow for that".
The fate of Egypt's tourist industry, a vital source of hard currency for a struggling economy, is at stake as well as the credibility of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's claims to have brought under control the militants fighting to topple his government.
British and US spies intercepted "chatter" from suspected militants and at least one other government suggesting that a bomb, possibly hidden in luggage in the hold, downed a Russian airliner killing all 224 people on board.
British Prime Minister David Cameron halted flights to and from Sharm al-Sheikh on Wednesday after intelligence shown to him indicated it was likely that the Airbus A321 heading towards St Petersburg was brought down by a bomb.
Britain says there was a "credible threat" but has refused to comment further on the intelligence involved, citing long-standing rules about disclosing operational details about live investigations.
Western intelligence sources said some of the assessment about the bomb came from intercepted communications both from suspected militants and from one or more governments involved in the investigation.
The intelligence sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation, said the evidence was not categorical and that there is still no hard forensic or scientific evidence to support the bomb theory.
"We still cannot be categorical but there is a distinct and credible possibility that there was a bomb," one source said.
Two sources with knowledge of the matter said the bomb may have been hidden in luggage in the hold of the Russian plane. They refused to give any further information.
A US official said the "chatter" intercepted about the bomb includes conflicting details about where the bomb was placed on the plane.
Russia, which was initially critical of Britain's assessment of what it has called a crash, on Friday suspended all flights to Egypt.
President Vladimir Putin ordered the halt to flights after Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia's FSB security service, recommended that Russia suspend all passenger flights to Egypt until it knew exactly what caused the crash.
"Until we know the real reasons for what happened, I consider it expedient to stop Russian flights to Egypt," said Bortnikov.
"Above all, this concerns tourist routes."
Cameron's spokesman declined to be drawn on details.
"The evidence we received suggested there was a credible threat with regard to Sharm al-Sheikh airport which is why we have taken the actions we have.
"I am not going to get into discussions on security matters. I am not going to speculate on the intelligence."
Friday 6 Nov 2015
Egypt insisted on Thursday its airports were secured to international standards, despite growing concerns that its screening procedures may be flawed and that Islamist militants may have downed a Russian plane by smuggling a bomb on board.
Earlier Britain said a bomb planted by an Islamic State affiliate active in the Sinai Peninsula may have caused the jet to crash on Saturday, killing all 224 people on board. It halted flights to Sharm al-Sheikh - from where the doomed plane flew - pending security checks, a move quickly followed by Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands.
Egyptian and Russian officials have said it is too early to conclude a blast had brought down the plane.
"All Egyptian airports apply international standards in airport security measures," civil aviation minister Hossam Kamal said in a statement, adding that the investigation was ongoing.
But Egypt also promoted the airport chief at Sharm al-Sheikh, a resort popular with British, Russian and other European holidaymakers seeking winter sun, to deputy head of operations at the national airport operator.
The timing of that move, along with a steady string of security breaches, have stirred doubts about airport safety around Egypt.
A day after Islamist militants claimed responsibility for downing the Russian plane, two men cleared the fence at another Red Sea airport, in the resort of Hurghada, and were arrested before they reached the runway, a judicial source said.
The source said the youths were criminals planning a robbery but some local media had earlier reported that the men had reached an airplane bound for Spain in the hope of stowing away under the wheels to start new lives in Europe.
"How did two youths who were not travelling, without passports, without visas, with nothing, get to the airplane?" asked Amr Abdelhamid, presenter of a current affairs programme on private television channel TEN.
In another incident in April, a donkey was found wandering around the carpark at Cairo airport and was captured on a video that went viral, with Egyptians tweeting sarcastic comments hashtagged in Arabic "how did the donkey enter the airport?"
"He thought and thought and exploited a security loophole," one person tweeted, mocking what they said was the official explanation for the breach, also carried in newspapers.
Though Egyptians made light of these incidents with their typically caustic humour, they underscored the widely-held view that standards are low and the potential for corruption high in poorly-paid public sector jobs including travel security.
Aside from the loss of lives, at stake are the fate of Egypt's tourist industry, a vital source of hard currency in a struggling economy, and the credibility of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's claims to have brought under control the militants fighting to topple his government.
Egypt's tourist industry took years to recover after militant Islamist gunmen killed 58 tourists and four Egyptians at an archaeological site near Luxor in 1997.
At Sharm al-Sheikh airport, security appeared to have been tightened on Thursday, with security forces patrolling the terminals and not allowing drivers, tour agents or others to loiter while awaiting tourist arrivals, a witness said.
Britain said it was working with airlines and Egyptian authorities to put in place more security and screening measures to allow thousands of stranded British tourists to get home.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said short-term measures would include more levels of baggage screening and searching in order to double-check everything going onto planes.
One particular issue raised by security officials appears to revolve around baggage handlers and other staff.
One US government source said security at Sharm al-Sheikh airport was porous and that militants could have infiltrated or bribed their way into secure zones. Another noted that no major U.S. carrier flies into or out of Sharm, suggesting that inadequate security was one reason for this.
Noting that London was hosting Sisi on Thursday, Bruce Riedel, a former CIA expert on the region, said: "British intelligence is very thorough. The prime minister's office knew suspending Sinai flights on the eve of Sisi's visit would be a major embarrassment so I'm confident the intelligence was pretty strong pointing to a bomb."
"Security at other airports in Egypt including Cairo could well be compromised, given the large number of angry young Egyptians who believe their revolution was stolen."
Egypt has struggled to lure back tourists since the 2011 uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule ushered in a period of political instability.
Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood won Egypt's presidential election after the uprising, but Sisi - then army chief - removed him from power in 2013 after mass protests. Sisi then banned the Brotherhood, jailed thousands of its members and cracked down on an increasingly violent Sinai insurgency.
The Brotherhood says it is not linked to Sinai-based militants who have claimed responsibility for the plane incident. The government treats both as terrorists and a downed jet would raise questions about the effectiveness of its policy.
Travellers departing from Egyptian airports are required to put their luggage through scanners before check-in and again before boarding.
Additional security measures are in place for flights to particular destinations, notably London, at the request of those authorities, airport security sources said.
These may involve, for instance, passengers removing their shoes for inspection, the sources said.
Egyptian intelligence and security agencies also carry out background checks on anyone seeking employment at any airport.
Egypt must follow regulations set out by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the aviation safety arm of the United Nations regarding passengers, staff and baggage.
European Union airport security levels are stricter than those of ICAO and Britain in turn has its own special measures in place, which takes its security a notch higher still.
Speaking at a news conference in London, Sisi said Britain had approached his country 10 months ago with a view to reviewing airport security and Egypt had complied.
Security sources said Britain had provided advanced explosives detection technology for use at Sharm al-Sheikh.
One expert said more covert testing was needed to make sure standards were upheld in Egypt and more awareness was needed that threats were not limited to passengers and their bags.
"You can have the best procedures in the world, but is everyone following them?" Matthew Finn, managing director of independent aviation security consultants Augmentiq, said.
One issue, Finn said, is that airport staff often aren't paid much money and can lack the right skills as a result.
British passengers who have travelled in the past through Sharm airport took to Twitter on Thursday to describe lax security, such as staff being more interested in their phones than checking bags. But some said they felt security was fine.
Despite some cancellations, flights continue to arrive at Sharm, said Civil Aviation Minister Kamal, including 23 from Russia on Thursday.
While the police presence was heavy in Naama Bay, the main strip of hotels and restaurants in Sharm al-Sheikh, shops were open on Thursday night and tourists appeared to be relaxed.
Flights from Sharm al-Sheikh to the UK will resume on Friday, Britain says, after agreeing additional security measures with Egypt.
Britain will resume flights from the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh on Friday after agreeing on additional security measures with Cairo, the prime minister's office says.
Britain suspended flights after the crash on Saturday of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula.
Prime Minister David Cameron hosted Egypt's President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi on Thursday and discussed the situation.
"Following further discussions with the airlines and the Egyptians, we have agreed on a package of additional security measures that is being put in place rapidly," the prime minister's office said in a statement.
"Consequently the government has decided, in consultation with the airlines, that flights from Sharm to the UK will resume tomorrow."