Fears were growing today that a bomb could have destroyed the Russian holiday jet that crashed in Egypt killing all 224 people on board.
The Airbus A321 broke up mid-air shortly after takeoff from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, scattering wreckage over a wide area in Sinai.
Terrorism and aviation experts believe a bomb may have been responsible, pointing to the fact there was no distress call and that the fuselage skin had peeled outwards possibly due to a ‘force acting outwards from within’.
A top official at Russian airline Metrojet also blamed an ‘external impact’ for the disaster, insisting the jet was in ‘excellent’ condition and that the pilots ‘totally’ lost control of the aircraft.
Alexander Smirnov, the deputy general director of Metrojet’s parent company Kogalymavia, told reporters in Moscow today that the cause of the crash ‘could only have been a mechanical impact on the plane’ in the air.
But when pressed for more details, Smirnov refused to elaborate due to the ongoing investigation and did not explain whether he meant something had hit the plane or that some external factor had caused the crash.
‘The plane was in excellent condition. We rule out a technical fault and any mistake by the crew,’ he said.
The airline said its plane dropped 186mph in speed and around 5,000 feet in altitude one minute before it crashed into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Kogalymavia’s deputy general director for engineering, Andrei Averyanov, said a 2001 incident when the plane’s tail section struck the tarmac on landing was fully repaired and could not have been a factor in the crash.
He said the aircraft’s engines had undergone routine inspection in Moscow on October 26 which found no problems and he said in the five flights before the crash, the crew recorded no technical problems in the aircraft’s log book.
Oksana Golovina, a representative of the holding company that controls Metrojet, said the airline had experienced no financial problems which could have influenced flight safety.
Her comments came amid reports from the RIA news agency that the company missed salary payments to employees for two months.
Russian aviation authorities were quick to chide the company for jumping the gun on the investigation, calling its comments premature.
Asked about Metrojet’s claim of an external impact, the head of the Russian aviation agency, Alexander Neradko, decried Metrojet’s comments as ‘not based on any real facts’.
He urged aviation experts ‘to refrain from drawing conclusions’ at this stage of the probe.
Data from the plane’s black box recorders also revealed that the aircraft was not struck from the outside and confirmed the pilots did not make a distress call before it disappeared from radar, a source in the committee analysing the devices has said.
The Egyptian government said the black boxes, said to be in good condition, were being examined by Egyptian and Russian experts along with German and French specialists from Airbus and from Ireland where the aircraft was registered.
It came as James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, said he could not rule out the plane was brought down by Islamic State extremists.
He told reporters in Washington that ‘we don’t have any direct evidence of any terrorist involvement yet’ but noted that ISIS, which has claimed responsibility, has a significant presence in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Asked if they had the capabilities to bring down a passenger jet, he said: ‘It’s unlikely, but I wouldn’t rule it out.’
The United States, Germany and Britain all had overflight warnings in place for Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, due to extremist violence and, notably, the use of anti-aircraft weapons with what the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration described as having the potential to reach high altitudes.
Germany’s warning, filed with the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation on October 5 remains in place until 2016, as do the British and American warnings.
In a response dated October 15, Egypt’s civil aviation authority replied that ‘all necessary measures for safeguarding the airspace are already taken from our side.’
The warnings advised airlines to avoid flying over the Sinai Peninsula below 26,000 feet and to avoid the Sharm el-Sheik airport where the jet took off.
Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov also said there are not yet any grounds to rule out any theory for the crash, when replying to a question about whether a terrorist attack could be to blame.
Meanwhile, Russia’s Investigative Committee said 130 bodies and 40 body parts were flown back to St Petersburg, the intended destination of the doomed flight.
Russian news agencies say the government will be dispatching a second plane to bring back more remains later in the day.
President Vladimir Putin declared a nationwide day of mourning and flags flew at half-mast on Monday.
On Sunday, aviation experts and the search teams were combing an area of 16 square kilometres to find bodies and pieces of the jet.
The Egyptian government said that by midday, 163 bodies had been recovered.
Russian aviation officials confirmed the jet disintegrated at high altitude in a remote region where Egypt is fighting ISIS-linked terrorists who have claimed to have downed the plane, but have not said how they might have done so.
Professor Michael Clarke, Director General of the Royal United Services Institute, earlier said a bomb was a more likely cause for the plane breaking up mid-air than a missile or mechanical failure.
He told BBC Radio Five Live: ‘There’s no sign of a distress call, so the idea that the aircraft was undergoing an mechanical problem, or an engine problem, or a fire, or something like that, you would expect that there would be some sort of distress call beforehand.
‘So the fact that there was a catastrophic failure at 31,000 feet, with the aircraft falling in two pieces, suggests to me an explosion on board.
‘So was this caused by some form of terrible accident, which is unlikely, or a bomb, which is much more likely, my mind is moving in that direction rather than anything that happened on the ground.’
An aviation expert writing on pprune, an internet forum for professional pilots, claimed the tail section of the aircraft also shows evidence of ‘the fuselage skin peeling outwards possibly indicative of a force acting outwards from within’.
He wrote: ‘Similarly there’s the very clean break around the fuselage frame. It looks like and initial failure as opposed to something twisting and tearing it up apart as it fell.’
Meanwhile, a Russian expert close to the Egypt plane crash investigation has also likened the disaster to the Lockerbie tragedy of 1988 when a PanAm Boeing 747 was blown out of the sky by a bomb over Scotland.
An explosive device could have been planted in the luggage hold of the Airbus A321 in which 224 people were killed, indicated the unnamed source.
He was cited by respected Kommersant newspaper, owned by Kremlin-friendly billionaire Alisher Usmanov, a major shareholder at Arsenal FC, as there were also reports that jet ‘fell on its back, literally on its back’ as it descended.
His theory of a similarity to Lockerbie comes as a number of experts in Russia and the West have questioned the early assumption that a technical fault led to the crash of the tourist plane flying from Sharm el-Sheikh to St Petersburg on Saturday.
‘The Egyptian crash is more likely to be compared to the downing of a Boeing 747 of Pan American in December 1988 near Lockerbie (Scotland) and killed 270 people,’ said the newspaper today.
A similar small bomb could have been planted on the Russian aircraft, leading to a hole – no larger than a watermelon – in the fuselage, he indicated.
The aim of such an attack in the luggage section was not to destroy the plane, but to cause a ‘sudden loss of pressurization’ leading to catastrophe.
Flight KGL 9268 was at an altitude of 31,000 feet, the same height as Pan Am flight 103.
The bomb was planted inside a cassette recorder by a Libyan secret services agent and detonated by barometric pressure, killing all 259 on the plane, and 11 on the ground.
The Russian expert cited by Kommersant said another cause of sudden depressurization could have been a fatigue crack in the 18 year old plane.
An ‘informed source’ in Egypt told Interfax that the plane flipped over as it fell to the ground on Saturday, but added it was ‘too soon’ to draw conclusions on the fate of the plane.
Prof Clarke said the crash zone was in an area with large numbers of Islamic terrorists and is not under the full control of the Egyptian government.
He said: ‘But also it is a transit area because there are a great many weapons coming over from Libya, because of the Libyan revolution in 2011. About 600 arms dumps were left open and unguarded.
‘These arms dumps are weapons that Colonol Gaddafi had and those weapons are just moving around the Middle East, so a lot of them end up going through Sinai on their way to Syria and other places.
‘So it is a very difficult area and it is an area in which, I have to say, government writ simply does not run. Despite being in Egyptian territory, the government in Cairo does not have much control about what goes on there.
‘It does look coincidental, but the technical issue is an important one. This aircraft was 200km north of its take-off zone, that means it was flying at around 31,000 feet.
‘Terrorists, as far as we know, don’t have equipment to take down an aircraft at that height. They have shoulder-launched missiles, known as man-portable missiles.
‘They can get aircraft when they are taking off or landing, when they are going low and slow. But anything above 8,000 or 9,000 feet is out of the range of the weapons that they’ve got.
‘Now, an aircraft at that height was brought down last year, of course, while over Ukraine, but that was using, almost certainly, Russian official army equipment, a BUK missile, which are designed as anti-aircraft missiles against military aircraft.
‘There is no sign that the jihadists in the Middle East have got hold of any of that equipment.
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