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Bomb suspected in Egyptian plane downing

As nations halted flights from the airport where the doomed airliner departed.
The UK government and two US officials said that a bomb may have brought down the Russian plane that crashed in Egypt on Saturday, as nations halted flights from the airport where the doomed airliner departed.

“While the investigation is still ongoing we cannot say categorically why the Russian jet crashed,” UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said in an e-mailed statement on Wednesday. “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.”

The statement from the usually cautious British government is the strongest official word that terrorists may have been responsible for the crash of the Metrojet Airbus Group SE A321. People claiming to represent the Islamic State militants Russia is fighting in Syria said they downed the jet in retaliation.

Two US government officials familiar with the investigation, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said suspicions are growing among intelligence agencies that a bomb is responsible for the jet’s crash. One of them said preliminary evidence suggested Islamic State involvement.

The Irish Aviation Authority followed the UK government statement by ordering Ireland-based airlines not to fly to the Sharm el-Sheikh or the the Sinai peninsula until further notice, according to a statement.

Premature Conclusions

Other governments — including Russia’s — warned that any conclusions are premature and that a structural failure or other cause could explain how the plane broke into pieces and fell to the desert, killing all 224 aboard. Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, called the UK government statement “premature and unwarranted,” according to the BBC.

“Only investigators can have theories,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said by text message. “Everyone has guesses and speculation.”

State Department spokesman John Kirby said it was too soon to conclude terrorists were responsible.

“I’m not going to jump to that conclusion and this government is not going to jump to that conclusion,” Kirby said. “We’re not in a position to make a call right now…. We don’t know what brought this plane down.”

The agency, however, warned its employees to avoid the Sinai peninsula.

Downed Aircraft

If the Metrojet plane was bombed, it adds to the list of aircraft that were brought down by terrorists and political dissidents using explosive devices. Among the most recent were two Russian passenger jets destroyed by bombs believed to have been taken aboard by Chechen rebels in 2004.

Flight 103 on now-defunct airline Pan Am was blown up over Scotland by a bomb believed to have been placed by Libyan intelligence agents on on Dec. 21, 1988.

Anthony Skinner, an analyst with UK-based forecasting company Verisk Maplecroft, said evidence of Islamic State in the crash would result in stepped up efforts to fight Islamist groups and further tighten airport security.

“If we are not talking a surface to air missile attack, then an onboard aircraft bombing would represent a really serious breach of airport security,” Skinner said. “Heads would roll.”

Recorder Damaged

Britain isn’t formally a party to the Metrojet probe and the government statement didn’t say whether its actions are based on findings from the crash investigators or an interpretation of information already in the public domain. Egypt said Wednesday that the Airbus’s cockpit-voice recorder was damaged in the crash and that work is required to access its final few minutes. The flight-data device has been decoded and work will begin on that information shortly.

Flights from Sharm el-Sheikh to the UK are to be delayed to allow time for aviation security experts to arrive in Egypt and assess the arrangements at the airport. Cameron is to chair a meeting of the government’s emergency COBRA committee later on Wednesday. There were no more flights due to travel to Sharm from the UK on Wednesday, the government said.

“The mere fact that the UK is willing too state this suggests that London has very strong intelligence indeed,” Richard Gowan, New York-based fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in an e-mail. “British politicians are very wary about using intelligence speculatively.”

Terrorism Possible

Earlier, Michael McCaul, chairman of the US House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, said he wouldn’t rule out terrorism. He pointed to the Khorasan group, made up of al-Qaeda members operating in Syria, which he said has been developing non-metallic improvised explosive devices that can avoid screening technology.

“One of my concerns about the Russian plane, given the Russian activity now in Syria, is that it possibly could have been one of these non-metallic IEDs,” McCaul said in an interview. “You can’t rule that out at this point in time.”

Revised data covering the Metrojet’s final moments show that it slowed suddenly and then plunged to the Earth at 300 miles (483 kilometers) per hour, according to flight-tracking website FlightRadar24. The plane fell from 31,000 feet to 26,000 feet in the final 26 seconds, according to the final transmissions from its radio transponder.

Cruising Altitude

The data is consistent with reports from Egyptian and Russian officials, who said that the plane came apart as it was flying at cruising altitude from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg. It also indicates that the plane’s direction of travel was wobbling from side to side, which would occur if it was coming apart. In the seconds after that, readings from the plane generated by air pressure begin to become suspicious, according to the company.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the US had no information to share on the investigation, which the Egyptians are leading with Russian involvement. “I don’t want to say anything that would interfere with or prejudice that ongoing investigation,” he told reporters.

None of the big three US carriers — American Airlines Group Inc., United Continental Holdings Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc.– serves any Egyptian destinations. EgyptAir Airlines Co., the country’s flagship airline, is a member of the Star Alliance, the marketing group led by United and Germany’s Deutsche Lufthansa AG.

Bombing Fallout

“If this is indeed a bombing, it will put Western politicians in a difficult position,” said Gowan, with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “On the one hand, this is exactly what the US and its allies had predicted would happen after Russia went into Syria. They will hope that Moscow will be more flexible over Syria after this.”

But in all likelihood Putin may respond by doubling down militarily and demanding more Western support in a joint war on terror, he said.

Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, the latest reports shifts the narrative of the disaster and represents a propaganda coup for the Islamic State.

“More observers — and now more governments — appear at least open to the possibility that ISIS was involved,” he said, using another name for the Islamic State. “Egypt’s tourism industry is further damaged and the Sinai seems even more unstable than it already was. ”

©2015 Bloomberg News

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