Russia suspended all passenger flights to Egypt on Friday after a deadly plane crash at the weekend as Western officials said intelligence “chatter” supported the theory that the jet was brought down by a bomb.
President Vladimir Putin’s decision was a response to the crash of an Airbus A321 operated by a Russian carrier on Saturday over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. All 224 people on board were killed.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi agreed Putin to bolster coordination to secure Russian flights and resume them as soon as possible, after Moscow halted them Friday, his office said.
Sisi called Putin and they agreed "to bolster cooperation between the two countries' relevant agencies to ensure the safety of Russian tourists and strengthen security measures for Russian planes," a statement said.
Moscow halted the flights amid mounting suspicion that a Russian airliner that crashed in Egypt on Saturday, killing 224 people, had been brought down by a bomb.
An analysis of black boxes from the Russian plane that crashed in Egypt point to a bomb on board the aircraft, a source close to the probe said Friday.
The flight data and voice recorders showed "everything was normal" until both failed at 24 minutes after takeoff, pointing to "a very sudden explosive decompression."
The data "strongly favours" the theory of a bomb on board, the source said.
British and U.S. spies intercepted “chatter” from suspected militants and at least one other government suggesting that a bomb, possibly hidden in luggage in the hold, downed the airliner, Western intelligence sources said.
The intelligence sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation, said the evidence was not categorical and there was still no hard forensic or scientific evidence to support the bomb theory.
Britain, which said a bomb planted by an Islamic State affiliate may have caused the crash, Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands, had already suspended regular flights to Sharm al-Sheikh where the downed Russian airliner originated. Turkey said on Friday it was also cancelling flights to the Egyptian resort.
Russia’s decision may be the first sign that Moscow, which launched air strikes against Islamist fighters including Islamic State in Syria more than a month ago, is attaching credibility to the theory that militants put a bomb on the aircraft.
However, the Kremlin said the decision to suspend flights did not mean it thought the crash was caused by a terrorist attack.
Additionally, United States said Friday it was stepping up security screenings of U.S.-bound flights from some Middle East airports as a precaution after the crash.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the United States also would review its assessments of foreign airports and offer them help with security as well as take other measures, “both seen and unseen.”
Russia has said it is too early to say what caused the crash and that all theories, including technical failure, should be examined by the official investigation. Egypt has also said it is too early to conclude a blast had 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 improve flight safety. Peskov later told reporters the suspension would remain in place until such time as the Kremlin was satisfied that security had been sufficiently improved.
“I think that since Putin made the decision to cancel flights, most likely there is a genuine suspicion that it was a terrorist act. And of course, then it is correct to cancel the flights because it means it is dangerous to fly there,” said Maria Solomatina, 27, an IT consultant who has a ticket to travel to Egypt in mid-November.
A Sinai-based group affiliated with Islamic State, the militants who have seized swathes of Iraq and Syria, has claimed responsibility for the crash, which, if confirmed, would make it the jihadist organisation’s first attack on civil aviation.
Egypt is one of the most popular holiday destinations for Russians and any decision to suspend flights would cause major logistical problems for Russia’s airlines and tourists.
The Russian Travel Industry Union estimated there were around 50,000 Russian tourists currently in Egypt and said refunding cancelled tickets to Egypt could bankrupt Russian tour operators, the Interfax news agency reported.
Tourist agency Tez Tour, which estimates it sells about 15 percent of trips to Egypt from Russia, said 10,000 of its Russian clients were in Egypt.
“How are they (the authorities) going to bring people back? If people are at a resort and they come to them to say a plane was sent to take you back, they would say: no, we want to be on holiday for two more weeks, we’re not going anywhere. An evacuation order would be needed,” said Vladimir Kaganer, general director of Tez Tour.
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 Sisi’s claims to have brought under control the militants fighting to topple his government.
The crash has put Egypt’s airport security measures in the spotlight.
KLM introduced new security measures on its trips from Cairo to Amsterdam. Passengers will only be allowed to take hand luggage onto the flight, Egyptian airport security sources said on Friday.
Several passengers instead opted to take different flights. KLM Flight 554 left Cairo on Friday morning with only 115 passengers out of its 247 registered ones as a result.