LONDON, Nov 6, (Agencies): British attempts to bring home thousands of tourists stranded in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el- Sheikh were thrown into chaos on Friday when Egypt slashed the number of flights it would allow to take them home. Prime Minister David Cameron halted flights between Britain and the resort over concerns that a Russian airliner that crashed after leaving the same airport on Saturday may have been brought down by a bomb planted by Islamic State militants. Britain, which has about 20,000 of its tourists in Sharm el- Sheikh, was planning to return some of them from the resort on Friday, with only hand luggage, due to security concerns.
Those plans were thrown into confusion when Egypt said only eight of the planned 29 flights to take the Britons home would be able to operate. Britain’s Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin had earlier said “well over 20 flights” were scheduled.
Egypt’s Minister of Civil Aviation Hossam Kamal said the operation to bring large numbers of British holidaymakers from their hotels to the airport and then put them on flights without their luggage was “a huge burden on the airport because its capacity does not allow for that”. “We have asked them to organise eight flights only, and one plane will transport luggage,” Kamal said. He said the airport did not have room to store the more than 120 tonnes of luggage that departing passengers would leave behind.
A spokesman for Cameron said Britain was trying to get the holidaymakers home quickly and safely, but described the situation as “difficult and fluid”. “We have to be realistic that this is a complex and difficult operation. We are working closely with the airline companies, with the Egyptian authorities, to ensure that we get British nationals out safely,” he said. British Ambassador to Egypt John Casson said flights had begun departing. “Flights are coming in which will allow us to take more people home today,” Casson said in Sharm al-Sheikh as he tried to reassure exasperated tourists at the airport.
Thomas Cook Airlines, easyJet, privately- held Monarch, British Airways and Thomson operate direct flights between Britain and Sharm el-Sheikh. EasyJet said it had been refused permission to fly most of its empty planes to Egypt, and that just two of its 10 planned flights had been given permission to fly out of Egypt.
The other airlines said they were expecting their planned flights to go ahead. Britain’s public airing of its concerns about a bomb being responsible for the Russian air crash has angered Egypt, which depends on tourism revenue, and drew criticism from the Kremlin, which said it had not been given details of the intelligence behind Britain’s move. A Sinai-based group affiliated with Islamic State, the militants who have seized swathes of Iraq and Syria, has claimed responsibility for the crash, which, if confirmed, would make it the jihadist organisation’s first attack on civil aviation.
Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin ordered the suspension of all Russian passenger flights to Egypt on Friday until the cause of a deadly plane crash at the weekend was established. Putin’s decision was a response to the unexplained crash of an Airbus A321 operated by a Russian carrier on Saturday over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. All 224 people on board were killed. The move, which follows decisions by Britain and Ireland to suspend flights to and from Sharm al-Sheikh, the Egyptian resort where the downed Russian airliner originated, is the first sign that Moscow is attaching credibility to the theory that Islamist militants somehow planted a bomb on the aircraft. Putin acted after Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s FSB security service, recommended that Russia suspend all passenger flights to Egypt until it knew exactly what caused the crash. “The head of state agreed with these recommendations,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. “V. Putin has tasked the government with working out a mechanism to realise the recommendations of the National Anti-Terrorism Committee and to ensure the return of Russian citizens to the motherland.”
Elsewhere, US President Barack Obama and Britain’s prime minister both believe a bomb may have downed a Russian plane in Egypt, with reports Friday suggesting their theory was based on intercepted communications.
With concerns over security mounting, European airlines readied to bring home thousands of tourists from the Sinai Peninsula resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, from where the crashed Russian plane took off last Saturday. But there were angry scenes at the airport as thousands of anxious Britons who had hoped to fly home were sent back to their hotels after Egypt blocked additional repatriation flights. A first flight took off for London’s Gatwick airport after a long delay.
In a sign of mounting fears about the security of baggage handling in Egypt, Dutch carrier KLM announced that it had banned check-in luggage on an early flight from Cairo, mirroring moves taken by several European airlines on Sharm flights.
The Islamic State (IS) jihadist group has claimed responsibility for the disaster, in which the Saint Petersburg-bound jet crashed minutes after taking off, killing all 224 mainly Russian tourists on board. Cairo and Moscow have sought to downplay the suggestion of an attack. But Obama told a US radio station: “I think there is a possibility that there was a bomb on board and we are taking that very seriously,” while emphasising it was too early to say for sure.
In London, where Prime Minister David Cameron hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Thursday, the British premier told reporters it was “more likely than not that it was a terrorist bomb” that caused the crash. And The Times newspaper reported on Friday that electronic communications intercepted by British and US spies suggested a bomb may have been carried onto the plane.