The British government has suspended all flights between the UK and the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh after US and UK officials said they believe the Russian plane that crashed over the Sinai peninsula may have been brought down by an explosive device.
The UK foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, said his government is now advising against all but essential travel through Sharm el-Sheikh airport in Egypt as there is a “significant possibility” that the plane was brought down by an explosion on board, the strongest remarks yet by an official on the cause of the crash.
US intelligence now suggests a bomb was planted on the plane by Isis or an Isis affiliate, according to several media reports, citing unnamed US officials.
“A bomb is a highly possible scenario,” a US official told AFP, four days after the Airbus crashed in Sinai, killing all 224 people on board.
The British government ordered a moratorium on flights to and from the beach resort while security assessments were carried out, after receiving specific intelligence in the last 24 hours about the plane.
It believes there are currently up to 20,000 Britons on holiday in Sharm el-Sheikh, who might have to be evacuated if the UK decides it is not satisfied with Egyptian security.
Within hours of the UK announcement, CNN reported an anonymous US official saying the latest intelligence suggested a bomb was planted on the plane by Islamic State or one of its affiliates.
Two US and one European official told Reuters that intelligence reporting is leaning toward terrorism as a cause of the crash, but cautioned there was no conclusive proof yet.
“It is believed to be an explosion but what kind is not clear. There is an examination of the sand at the crash site to try and determine if it was a bomb,” said the Egyptian source, who is close to the team investigating the black boxes.
“There are forensic investigations underway at the crash site. That will help determine the cause, to see if traces of explosives are found.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said: “I don’t have any new information from here to share about the ongoing investigation. US officials have been in touch with both Egyptian and Russian officials and have offered assistance.”
He said the US won’t be following Britain’s measures because it doesn’t need to: no US airlines regularly operate out of Sharm el-Sheikh, whereas British ones do. Since March, the US has advised civil aviation to avoid flying at lower altitudes – under 26,000 feet – over Sinai because of the potential risk.
Hammond said there was a “significant possibility” the plane was brought down by a bomb.
“Unfortunately and very reluctantly, this evening we have concluded have to change our travel advice and we are now advising against all but essential travel by air through Sharm el-Sheikh airport.
“That means there will be no UK passenger flights out to Sharm el-Sheikh from now. Passengers on the ground in Sharm el-Sheikh will be returned to the UK. We are working with the airlines and the Egyptian authorities to put in place emergency procedures for additional screening and additional security to make sure they can get home safely either on the original dates or if they wish to leave earlier on an earlier date.”
Hammond apologised to those cannot fly and said said he recognised it would cause “immense disruption and inconvenience” to people. He also stressed that the UK is not changing its assessment about the threat level in Sharm el-Sheikh resort.
He also said he recognised that it would cause immense harm to the Egyptian economy but the UK government had to put the safety of its citizens first.
Egypt’s foreign minister attacked the move as a “premature and unwarranted” step which would damage his country’s tourism industry.
Both Egypt and Russia have downplayed suggestions that the crash is linked to terrorism and dismissed claims of responsibility by an Islamist group in Sinai.
The UK has intervened despite playing no part in the crash’s official investigation committee, which is formed from representatives from Ireland, Russia, France and Germany. Ireland later followed the UK’s lead and suspended flights to the same airport.
The unilateral decision to delay the flights comes on the eve of talks in Downing Street between Cameron and Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president.
The plane had taken off from Sharm el-Sheikh early on Saturday morning and disappeared from the radar about 25 minutes later, at around 6.20am local time. Everyone on board was killed.
Earlier the prime minister’s spokeswoman said: “While the investigation is still ongoing we cannot say categorically why the Russian jet crashed. But as more information has come to light we have become concerned that the plane may well have been brought down by an explosive device.
“In light of this and as a precautionary measure we have decided that flights due to leave Sharm for the UK this evening will be delayed. That will allow time for a team of UK aviation experts, currently travelling to Sharm, to make an assessment of the security arrangements in place at the airport and to identify whether any further action is required. We expect this assessment to be completed tonight. In terms of flights from the UK to Sharm, there are no more departures [scheduled] today.”
The UK’s decision came just as Egypt itself issued a statement saying that further analysis of the crash was needed before drawing conclusions.
A senior government official declined to comment directly on the UK’s decision to ground flights, but suggested that it was premature to attribute the crash to a bomb.Egypt’s civil aviation ministry announced on Wednesday evening that the plane’s black box had been retrieved, and would be subject to “detailed analysis” by the investigators.
“We are waiting for the international investigations team to produce their latest report on the black boxes,” said Egyptian cabinet spokesman Hossam el-Qawish.
Investigators have taken samples from the bodies of passengers killed in the crash, and they are being analysed by forensic experts for any further clues as to what might have brought down the plane, he added.
Asked about the decision taken on Wednesday to ground flights between the UK and Sharm el-Sheikh, a source inside the airport told the Guardian: “It’s something new, this kind of order affecting all airlines has never happened before. Even during the January 2011 revolution, nothing happened, everything was smooth here in Sharm, all the flights were operating normally.”
“You pass three or four security checks normally, plus an additional one for British flights, so that’s five security X-rays and screenings. It would be incredibly hard to put a bomb on the plane. They even scan the catering entering the airport for restaurants. I went to check this after what happened [Saturday’s crash] – they check catering staff and everything that goes into restaurants inside the terminal.”
However, a Russian aviation source told Reuters that the official investigation is looking into the possibility of an object stowed on board causing the disaster.
Russian officials have said the plane broke up in mid-air. The plane’s owner has said it was in “excellent technical condition”. The head of Russia’s aviation authority said it was too early to determine what caused the crash.“There are two versions now under consideration: something stowed inside [the plane] and a technical fault. But the airplane could not just break apart in the air - there should be some action. A rocket is unlikely as there are no signs of that,” the source said.
James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, has said “no direct evidence” has yet emerged pointing to terrorism being involved in the crash, but a terrorist attack could still not be ruled out.
A US military satellite picked up a heat flash in the final moments of the plane’s flight, the New York Times reported. That the explosion was strong enough to be picked up by satellite increased the likelihood that it was caused by a manmade device, but a mechanical failure was still possible, the paper quoted a military intelligence official as saying.
Images of the wreckage appear to show the skin of the fuselage peeling outwards, which some sources suggest points to an onboard explosion.
The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted an unnamed investigator as saying that the pattern of injuries to passengers could indicate that a strong explosion occurred on the plane before it hit the ground.
Investigators have yet to officially release data or findings, but according to unverified reports from Russia, cockpit recordings reveal unusual sounds at the moment the plane went off the radar and confirm there was no distress call from the pilots.
Cameron’s decision to suspend flights from Egypt comes ahead of Sisi’s visit to Britain this week. The Egyptian president has overseen the killing and jailing of thousands of opposition members, and his critics fear that his state visit to Britain gives him more legitimacy than he deserves.
A leading global security expert, Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International, said that Sharm el-Sheikh airport was no riskier than most airports – but warned that current practice across the industry was “fallible” and imprecise.
He said Britain’s move to assess security at the Egyptian airport did not necessarily indicate a bomb was confirmed. He said: “They have to move as if all possibilities are realities. I would like to think they would be working on that premise two days ago.
“But it is going to be tokenistic and not going to make any difference if we don’t know where the bomb was – in cargo, catering, luggage? We need to know where it was to know where to begin in the airport. If we’re relaying on x-raying baggage, then we’re in trouble wherever we are,” he said.
AFP and Reuters contributed to this report.