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.
Read more: NY Times