Putin too halts all flights to Egypt as evidence mounts that a bomb downed Russian plane over the Sinai

About 30,000 Russian tourists are now in Egypt, the country’s largest overseas vacation destination.

PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin halted all Russian flights to Egypt amid growing evidence a bomb downed a charter plane over the Sinai Peninsula en route to St. Petersburg, killing all 224 aboard.

“This is about the safety of our citizens, making sure they have an adequate level of security,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on a conference call with reporters.

About 30,000 Russian tourists are now in Egypt, the country’s largest overseas vacation destination, according to the Russian Tourism Industry Union.

U.K. airlines are struggling to repatriate another 20,000 people stranded at Sharm el-Sheikh, the Red Sea resort where the doomed airliner took off Oct. 31.

U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday echoed U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s concern terrorism may have been the cause of the crash. Cameron halted all regular British commercial air services to the resort.

“I think there is a possibility there was a bomb on board,” Obama said in an interview broadcast on radio station KIRO in Seattle, his first public remarks on the disaster. “And we’re taking that very seriously.”

Communications intercepted

British investigators intercepted communications from militants in Sinai that point to a bomb being put inside or on top of luggage in the hold of the Russian plane, the BBC reported, without saying where it got the information.

The U.S. moved to increase security on international flights and European airlines added baggage restrictions on planes traveling to and from Egypt.

Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry limited the number of flights leaving Sharm el-Sheikh for the U.K. on Friday after British authorities told operators not to carry any hold luggage for security reasons. As a result, only eight of the 29 planned departures were allowed.

“The airport cannot store 120 tons of luggage in its halls,” Civil Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal said in an e-mailed statement. “So it was decided to only fly eight trips from Sharm el-Sheikh today, and one plane to carry the luggage.”

EasyJet Plc said Egyptian authorities rejected eight of its planned flights out of Sharm el-Sheikh, leaving the discount carrier with two planes that can bring back a total of just 359 of its 4,500 customers today. The first of those planes has already taken off, the company said on its website.

The situation “remains fluid,” EasyJet said in a statement, adding that it was working on a solution with the U.K. government “at the highest level.” Two other U.K. carriers, Monarch Airlines and TUI AG, said they expect their flights to operate as planned.

Islamic State

People purporting to represent Islamic State claimed the downing was retaliation for Russia’s bombing of the extremist group in Syria.

Two U.S. officials have said preliminary evidence suggested involvement by Islamic State and investigators were examining the prospect that someone—perhaps a baggage handler or airline official—was bribed to get a bomb on board.

A Russian official familiar with the investigation said Thursday initial evidence pointed to a terrorist act or technical failure, with the black boxes showing the flight progressing normally before some sort of catastrophic event. Russia sent its top investigator, Alexander Bastrykin, to help ensure full cooperation as Egypt seemed reluctant to blame terrorism, apparently for fear of the impact on its tourism industry, the official said.

Putin’ spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, reiterated Russia’s position Friday that it’s too early in the investigation to jump to conclusions, though Russian officials were ordered to boost security at all destinations the country’s airlines fly to.

The U.K. government said additional security measures will be put in place after discussions with airlines and Egyptian authorities, including “permitting passengers to carry hand baggage only and transporting hold luggage separately.”

‘Wake-up call’

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will announce an increase in security on international flights by U.S. carriers as soon as Friday, according to a person familiar with the plan who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter. The person declined to specify what steps will be taken.

The new restrictions underscore what U.S. intelligence agencies are telling lawmakers in Washington.

Evidence gathered from multiple sources increasingly supports suspicions that operatives backing Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, smuggled an explosive device aboard the plane using an insider, said Representative Peter King, a New York Republican who serves on the House intelligence committee. 

“It’s a hell of a wake-up call,” King said.

The evidence so far is mixed on whether the Islamic State affiliate in Egypt acted alone or had direction, or at least communication, from the group’s leaders in Syria, King said.

-Bloomberg

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