WADI Al-ZOLOMAT, Egypt, Nov 1, (AFP): A Russian airliner that crashed in Egypt broke up “in the air” strewing fragments across a wide area, an expert said Sunday as investigators probed the disaster that killed 224 people. President Abdel Fattah el- Sisi urged patience to determine the cause of Saturday’s crash, after the Islamic State jihadist group (IS) claimed it brought down the A-321 in Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula. “The disintegration happened in the air and the fragments are strewn over a large area,” said Viktor Sorochenko, a senior official with Russia’s Interstate Aviation Committee, quoted by the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti from Cairo.
Sorochenko, who is heading an international panel of experts, said it was “too early to draw conclusions” about what caused the flight from Sharm el-Sheikh to Saint Petersburg to crash. Investigators have recovered the “black box” flight recorder and the Egyptian government said its contents were being analysed. “In such cases, leave it to specialists to determine the cause of the plane crash because it is a subject of an extensive and complicated technical study,” Sisi said.
The crash site in the Wadi al-Zolomat area of North Sinai was littered with blackened aircraft parts as the smell of burnt metal lingered, an AFP correspondent said. There were no bodies visible, but soldiers guarded dozen of bags and suitcases belonging to passengers from flight KGL 9268. A tiny red jacket underlined the horror of the tragedy that also killed 17 children. Officers involved in the search efforts said rescue crews had recovered 168 bodies so far, including one of a girl found eight kilometres (five miles) from the main wreckage.
Army helicopters hovered above the site as the search for bodies continued. Flags flew at half mast in Russia on Sunday and entertainment programmes on television were cancelled on a national day of mourning for the victims, most of them Russians ranging in age from 10 months to 77 years. Cairo said there were 214 Russian and three Ukranian passengers on board, and seven crew members. Both Cairo and Moscow have downplayed the claim from Egypt’s IS branch that it brought down the aircraft flown by the airline Kogalymavia, operating under the name Metrojet.
Prime Minister Sharif Ismail said experts had confirmed the militants could not down a plane flying at 30,000 feet (9,000 metres), the aircraft’s flight level, and Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said the claim “cannot be considered accurate”. A Russian team including Sokolov and emergency minister Vladimir Puchkov visited the scene in a remote part of the Sinai. Two air accident investigators from France — Airbus’s home country — were also due in Egypt along with six experts from the aerospace giant. Germany’s Lufthansa, Emirates and Air France all said they would halt flights over Sinai until the reasons for the crash were known.
The plane lost contact with air traffic control 23 minutes after take-off early on Saturday. Wreckage and dead bodies were found scattered over a large area south of the town of El-Arish. “We found a three-year-old girl eight kilometres from the scene” of the main wreckage, an officer told AFP from a military base in El-Hassna, 60 kilometres from the crash site. Many bodies were missing limbs, said the officer, who requested anonymity. The IS affiliate waging an insurgency in the Sinai claimed it brought down the aircraft in revenge for Russian air strikes against the jihadist group in Syria. But experts dismissed the idea. To reach a plane at that altitude “you would need hard-to-use missiles, so it seems unlikely,” said Jean-Paul Troadec, former director of France’s BEA aviation investigation agency. “This requires trained people and equipment that IS does not have, to my knowledge.”