Friday, November 6, 2015

Putin Suspends Russian Flights To Egypt Amid Security Fears

MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin on Friday suspended all flights from Russia to Egypt, the most popular tourist destination for Russians, until the cause of a mysterious plane crash that killed 224 people over the Sinai Peninsula had been established.

Mr. Putin’s decision, which followed a recommendation from Alexander Bortnikov, the director of the Federal Security Service, was the first breach in what has largely been a wall of silence from Russian and Egyptian authorities over the crash on Saturday. Until now, the two countries have been playing down the possibility of terrorism — even as Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, and President Obama, raised it as a possibility.
On Friday, the British government, which is trying to bring roughly 20,000 of its citizens back to Britain from Egypt, banned checked luggage on all flights from Sharm el Sheikh, where frustrated tourists at the airport heckled John Casson, the British ambassador to Egypt. Meanwhile, Turkish Airlines canceled all flights to and from the resort city, after a security assessment conducted at the airport.
A Kremlin spokesman said that Mr. Putin’s decision did not mean that the crash was caused by a terrorist act. Mr. Putin ordered that measures be taken to ensure that the roughly 45,000 Russian tourists already in Egypt — including Sharm el Sheikh, from which the doomed Metrojet plane departed — could be brought home safely.
Samples from the wreckage have been taken to Moscow for examination of possible traces of explosives.
“Russian specialists have collected swabs and scrapes from all fragments of the aircraft, luggage and soil,” the Russian minister for emergency situations, Vladimir Puchkov, said in remarks broadcast on national television. “The necessary samples have been taken from all items which might contain traces of explosives. All these samples have been delivered to Moscow and are being thoroughly examined now.”
More than 25 flights a day travel to Egypt from Russia, according to the Russian Tour Operators Association.
The drop in the value of the ruble over the past year has cut heavily into the number of Russians traveling overseas, with some destinations, like Spain, off by nearly 50 percent. But Egypt had largely held up, down by only 13 percent.
That changed rapidly after the crash, with bookings over all fallingup to 70 percent, tour operators said. Planes were still full over the past week however, because few tour operators offered refunds to those who had already booked and paid. Russians can buy a week in Egypt with room and some meals for as little as $400, but that is still a significant sum for many visitors.
The authorities in London have been working with a number of British airlines — easyJet, Thomson Airways and Monarch Airlines — to bring home 20,000 British citizens from the Sinai Peninsula. On Friday, the British government said that passengers traveling from Sharm el Sheikh to Britain would be permitted only one small item of hand luggage, for “essential items” like valuables, travel documents, keys, medications, credit cards and baby supplies.
The travelers’ situation remained in a state of flux. On Friday morning, easyJet said that the Egyptian authorities had interfered with the repatriation flights, although Egyptian officials said they were cooperating, and Monarch said that departures would proceed as planned.
EasyJet said that eight scheduled flights from Sharm el Sheikh — seven bound for London and one for Milan — would not be departing, but that two other flights to the British capital would go ahead.
Hossam Kamal, the Egyptian minister of civil aviation, said in a statement on Friday that Egypt was working with Britain, although he cautioned that the effort would be done “in the light of the resources of the airport and in accordance with international security regulations.” He said eight flights would leave for Britain rather than the originally scheduled 29.
An official at the Egyptian Ministry of Civil Aviation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk on behalf of the ministry, called the easyJet account “not correct,” saying the decision to limit flights was a matter of capacity and “organizational procedures.”
Betraying annoyance at the decision by British carriers to restrict checked baggage, Mr. Kamal said in his statement that the decision would only worsen the situation at the Sharm el Sheikh airport because it did not have room for the more than 120 tons of luggage that would be left behind.
The Dutch airline KLM told passengers on a flight from Cairo to Amsterdam on Friday that they could take only hand luggage. A statementon its website said the restriction was based on “national and international information and out of precaution.”
Turkish Airlines, which halted directed flights to and from Istanbul, sent a team of security experts to Sharm el Sheikh on Friday to carry out an assessment before deciding whether to resume service, a press officer for the company said.
The cause of the crash of the Russian jet, which could be the result of an explosive on board, a catastrophic mechanical failure, human error or an accidental explosion of fuel, remains a mystery.
An affiliate of the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the crash, and Mr. Obama’s comments were the first direct statement by the president that the crash might have been caused by something other than a technical malfunction. American officials have repeatedly cautioned that the cause of the crash is still under investigation.
In London on Thursday, Mr. Cameron was more emphatic about the cause, saying that it was “more likely than not a terrorist bomb” that had brought down the plane, as he announced plans to bring British citizens back home.
Mr. Kamal said on Thursday that the suggestion that a bomb had brought down the plane was not based on facts and that the British had unilaterally #KL

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