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MS804 explosive traces: Unraveling the skepticism over Egyptian claims

Purported evidence of TNT traces on the victims of EgyptAir flight MS804 has been met with silence by the industry and dismissals by relatives

Martin Rivers

Published: Updated:

Under normal circumstances, news that traces of explosives have been found after a major air disaster would send the safety-obsessed aviation industry into a headspin. That was what happened in October 2015, when security was tightened across the globe after it became apparent that Metrojet Flight 9268 had been downed by a bomb in Egypt.

Yet, just one year on, purported evidence of TNT traces on the victims of EgyptAir flight MS804 – which crashed en route from Paris to Cairo in May – has been met with deafening silence by the industry and angry dismissals by relatives of the victims.

Top of their concerns is the knowledge that Egypt has manipulated air crash investigations in the past. In 2002, the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA) rejected the findings of the more experienced US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) after parallel investigations into EgyptAir Flight 990, which had crashed into the Atlantic Ocean three years previously.

The NTSB cited “irrefutable evidence” that pilot suicide by a disgruntled employee had caused the disaster, whereas the ECAA declared that mechanical failure was the “likely cause of the accident”. Air safety experts around the world have dismissed the Egyptian account as a face-saving exercise. Now, seven months after the loss of MS804, a similar disagreement between French and Egyptian investigators appears to be taking shape.

Controversial claim

The Egyptian side confirmed last week that a coroner had found traces of explosives on the remains of some bodies pulled from the Mediterranean. Evidence of a possible bomb plot was first reported by Le Figaro newspaper, which revealed in September that French investigators had verified the presence of TNT but were being denied the opportunity to fully examine the remains.

Le Figaro went on to claim that Egyptian requests to publish a joint report with the French side had been rejected, owing to concerns about how the traces had come to appear on the debris.

The clear implication was that French officials believed the evidence may have been tampered with – though this was never publicly asserted by Paris.

Following the latest update from Cairo, an unnamed Egyptian official confirmed to Reuters that the two sides had not seen eye-to-eye during the initial stage of the investigation, with French experts requesting additional time to study the findings. "That is why it took so long to make an announcement," he said, implying that a consensus had now been reached.

The obvious question is why would Cairo fabricate a story about a terror attack – particularly given its parallel efforts to downplay atrocities committed on its soil, including the Metrojet disaster?

Martin Rivers

However, on the very same day as the Egyptian announcement, French air crash investigation agency BEA issued its own statement making clear that it still has doubts about the authenticity of the traces.

"In the absence of detailed information on the conditions and ways in which samples were taken leading to the detection of traces of explosives, the BEA considers that it is not possible at this stage to draw conclusions on the origin of the accident," the French body said, leaving little doubt that tampering remains a major concern in Paris.

The obvious question is why would Cairo fabricate a story about a terror attack – particularly given its parallel efforts to downplay atrocities committed on its soil, including the Metrojet disaster? (Egyptian officials called that crash an “accident” for several months, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.)

Face-saving exercise?

The answer, uncomfortably, is that this could be another misguided attempt at face-saving. The fact that MS804 was on the return leg of its Cairo-Paris-Cairo roundtrip means that any security breach would most likely have occurred in France; specifically, at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. In such a scenario, EgyptAir would largely be absolved of responsibility.

By contrast, most other plausible scenarios – mechanical failure, pilot error, or an accidental fire caused by smoking cigarettes – would place the blame squarely on EgyptAir, exposing the company to further reputational and financial damage.

That is the conclusion reached by Stephane Gicquel, head of France’s National Federation for Victims of Attacks and Accidents, who was quoted by AFP as saying: “We are being manipulated. No substantiated element points to terrorism. This is blackmail on the part of Egyptian authorities … to protect the company EgyptAir by placing responsibility on Paris.”

Until both the Egyptian and the French authorities conclude their investigations, observers can only speculate about what caused the crash. It would be unwise to read too much into remarks made by either side at this stage.

Nonetheless, news of contradictory findings is the last thing that relatives of the 66 perished victims want to hear. They need to know the truth about their loved ones’ final moments – and the wider world needs to know what measures, if any, can be taken to avert similar catastrophes in future.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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Martin Rivers is an aviation writer for The Economist, Arabian Aerospace, African Business & Asian Aviation.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.