Russia suspends flights to Egypt

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putinIn a stunning turnaround, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that flights from his country to Egypt should be suspended until it’s clear what brought down Metrojet Flight 9268, according to Russian state news.

Putin’s decision followed a recommendation made by Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service, in a committee meeting that aired Friday on Russian state TV.

Russia had until now resisted the theory that a bomb brought down the airliner, possibly because any terrorist bombing of a Russian plane could be seen as retaliation for the country’s decision to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and launch airstrikes against the terrorist group ISIS and other Assad opponents.

And it buttressed a theory that is forming on the cause of Saturday’s crash in Egypt’s Sinai.

As investigators pick through the rubble of the Russian airliner, and as Western officials sift through their own intelligence reports, a report says Flight 9268 may have been brought down by a bomb planted by an airport worker.

The bomb could have been smuggled on board by someone working at the airport in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, the BBC is quoting UK intelligence as saying.

But that theory has been resisted by Egyptian authorities, who may be worried about their tourism industry.

Meanwhile, British tourists stranded in the resort when flights were suspended began leaving on eight flights that were scheduled to leave Friday, said Hossam Kamel, Egypt’s civil aviation minister.

The British airline EasyJet announced in a statement Friday that two of its flights were airborne and en route back to the UK. More flights were expected to take off shortly.

The UK government estimates that 20,000 Britons are in Sharm el-Sheikh, and that it could take 10 days to get all of them out.

Those leaving were allowed hand luggage only — no checked bags, because of the fear that security had not prevented a bomb from being loaded into the hold of Metrojet Flight 9268 on Saturday

A heat flash detected by satellite

That plane, carrying mostly Russian families returning from Red Sea vacations, was flying from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg. It took off shortly before 6 a.m. If the theory is correct, the 224 passengers and crew members on board were already doomed.

Twenty-three minutes into the flight, more than 30,000 feet above sea level, the plane disappeared from radar. A U.S. satellite detected a heat flash over the Sinai Peninsula. The plane broke apart and fell to earth.

The theory of Western nations started to become known when Britain suspended flights from Sharm el-Sheikh to the UK because of fears of what those planes might be carrying.

It became more pronounced when it was articulated by both British Prime Minister David Cameron and U.S. President Barack Obama, though neither expressed it as a certainly. Cameron said it was “more likely than not.” Obama said it was “certainly possible.”

Neither leader is prone to loose talk on a matter like this, suggesting that the intelligence is strong.

However, Kamel, the Egyptian civil aviation minister, said investigators have found no evidence to support the theory that a bomb caused the plane to crash.

And on Friday, the BBC reported that UK intelligence believes a bomb in the hold of the doomed plane caused its crash, and suspicion was falling on airport workers in Sharm el-Sheikh.

The BBC said the intelligence breakthrough came from “intercepted communication between militants in the Sinai Peninsula.”

Also Friday, the body of Valery Nemov, the plane’s captain, was on its way home to the Volgograd region, 600 miles south-southeast of Moscow, for burial, the RIA Novosti news agency said.

Nemov had 12,000 hours of flying experience, meaning that nearly a year and a half of his life had been spent flying a plane. His mother is reported to be in a hospital, receiving psychological care

Funerals for the passengers began Thursday in Russia are and will continue Friday.

There’s still work to be done

Despite the emerging consensus, the intelligence on what caused the crash isn’t definitive, Obama said in an interview Thursday with Seattle radio station KIRO.

“We’re going to spend a lot of time just making sure our own investigators and own intelligence community find out what’s going on before we make any definitive pronouncements,” he said. “But it’s certainly possible that there was a bomb on board.”

Egypt is leading the crash investigation. Russia, France, Germany and Ireland also have investigators on the ground. But the United States and the United Kingdom aren’t part of the investigative team combing over forensic evidence from the scene.

Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom has shared intelligence about a possible bomb with Egyptian authorities, Egyptian officials said.

Putin said data from the official investigation should form the basis for assessments of what caused the crash, the Kremlin said in a statement.

Opinion: Ignore speculation in plane crash

Did ISIS down plane?

The signs pointing to ISIS as the culprit, another U.S. official said, are partially based on monitoring of the terrorist group’s internal messages. Those messages are separate from public ISIS claims of responsibility, the official said.

In an audio message from ISIS’ Sinai branch that was posted on terror-related social media accounts Wednesday, the organization adamantly insisted that it brought down the flight.

Typically, ISIS is quick to trumpet how and who carried out any attacks for purposes of praise and propaganda. To some, the fact that ISIS hasn’t provided details in this case raises doubt about the group’s repeated claims of responsibility.

Officials in Egypt and Russia have said there’s no evidence to support ISIS’ claims.

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