Russian plane that crashed in Egypt 'broke up in air'
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A Russian airliner that crashed in Egypt "broke up in the air", a Russian aviation official said on Sunday, as investigators searched for clues to what caused the downing of the passenger jet that killed 224 people.
A day after the crash, an outpouring of grief gripped the Russian city of Saint Petersburg, home of many of the victims. President Vladimir Putin declared a nationwide day of mourning and flags flew at half-mast.
Late on Sunday, a Russian plane carrying 162 bodies of those killed left Cairo for Saint Petersburg as search teams continued to comb an area of 16 square kilometres (more than six square miles) in a race to recover the remains of the other victims.
The Metrojet Airbus A321-200 crashed into a mountainous area of central Sinai on Saturday after departing from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and losing radar contact near cruising altitude.
"The destruction happened in the air, and fragments were scattered over a large area of around 20 square kilometres," said Viktor Sorochenko, director of the Intergovernmental Aviation Committee.
However, he warned against reading anything into this information. "It's too early to talk about conclusions," he said on Russian television from Cairo.
The Moscow-based committee represents governments of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which groups Russia and other former Soviet republics.
Russian authorities also ordered Kogalymavia airline, operator of the Airbus A321, not to fly its jets of the same model until the causes of the crash are known.
Egyptian analysts began examining the contents of the two "black box" recorders recovered from the airliner, although the process, according to a civil aviation source, could take days.
However, Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov told Russia 24 television that this work had not yet started.
Alexander Fridlyand, an independent expert who leads a Moscow-based aviation research centre, said in televised remarks Sunday that a quick plunge from high altitude may indicate that the plane was hit by a bomb explosion in its luggage compartment.
Another possibility was that of a malfunction in the plane's power system, which he said could have triggered a fire on board or the shutdown of both of the plane's engines.
A militant group affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) group in Egypt said in a statement on Saturday that it brought down the plane "in response to Russian airstrikes that killed hundreds of Muslims on Syrian land", but Russia's Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov told Interfax news agency the claim "can't be considered accurate".
The Russian statement followed the IS group’s affiliate in Egypt claim that it had downed the plane.
"The soldiers of the caliphate succeeded in bringing down a Russian plane in Sinai," said the statement circulated on social media.
FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadi movements, Wassim Nasr, said on Twitter that the IS group didn’t specify how the plane was shot down, but added that the IS group has never claimed an attack they didn’t commit.
IS group militants have shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles (Manpads), which have a flight ceiling of roughly 10,000 feet. However, the plane was said to be travelling at a height of 31,000 feet, putting it beyond the range of Manpads, before it made a steep descent as it crashed.
Egypt cautions against speculation
The Russian Embassy in Cairo said it had been told by Egyptian officials the pilot had been trying to make an emergency landing at Arish.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi cautioned that the cause of the crash may not be known for months and that the investigation "will take a long time" and "needs very advanced technologies".
"It's very important that this issue is left alone and its causes are not speculated on," he told a gathering of top government officials, members of the military and security forces.
Lufthansa, Air France, Dubai-based Emirates and Qatar Airways said they would suspend flights over the Sinai until the reason for the crash is known. British Airways, EasyJet and Virgin Atlantic said they were operating as usual in the region and would not comment on flight paths.
Russia's air-safety regulator on Sunday ordered Moscow-based Metrojet to temporarily suspend flights.
Despite the order, Metrojet continued operating its six remaining A321s, saying the regulator order meant that planes would be checked one by one and continue flying if they passed inspections.
Sinai is the scene of an insurgency by militants close to the IS group, who have killed hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and police and have also attacked Western targets in recent months.
Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, launched air raids against opposition groups in Syria including the IS group, on September 30.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS, AP)