By Polina Devitt and Andrew Osborn of Reuters via Huff Post World Post
MOSCOW/WASHINGTON, Nov 6 (Reuters) – Moscow suspended passenger flights to Egypt and Washington imposed new air travel security requirements in the wake of the crash of a Russian jet in Egypt, as Western officials pointed on Friday to the conclusion it was brought down by a bomb.
A group affiliated with Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the crash of an Airbus A321 operated by a Russian carrier on Saturday bringing holidaymakers home from a resort on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
All 224 people on board were killed in what the militants described as revenge for Russian air strikes in Syria that began more than a month ago.
While no official investigation has confirmed that claim of responsibility, countries have been canceling flights and announcing new precautions, leaving tens of thousands of European and Russian tourists stranded in Red Sea resorts.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced new security measures on Friday, including tighter screening of items before they are brought on board aircraft, for flights to the United States from some foreign airports in the region.
U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have already said the crash might have been caused by a bomb. Moscow initially rebuked Western countries for drawing such conclusions too quickly. But President Vladimir Putin’s decision to suspend Russian flights suggests the Kremlin is no longer trying to avert attention from that theory.
The sound of an explosion could be heard on the black boxes recovered from the plane, according to an investigator who had access to them, French TV station France 2 said on its website. The investigator ruled out engine failure, it added.
British and U.S. spies intercepted “chatter” from suspected militants as well as internal communication about the incident from one other government that suggested a bomb, possibly hidden in luggage in the hold, had downed the airliner, Western intelligence sources said.
The intelligence sources, who spoke on customary condition of anonymity, said the evidence was not categorical and there was still no hard forensic or scientific evidence to support the bomb theory.
“We still cannot be categorical but there is a distinct and credible possibility that there was a bomb,” one source said.
Decisions by Britain and other European countries to suspend flights to Sharm al-Sheikh left tens of thousands of tourists stranded in one of the most popular destinations for European holidaymakers seeking winter sunshine. Moscow’s decision to follow suit on Friday adds tens of thousands more.
Tour companies were trying to mount an operation to bring British holidaymakers home with only hand baggage and fly their luggage separately, but Cairo restricted the number of flights, saying Sharm al-Sheikh airport could not cope with the numbers.
Putin accepted advice from Russia’s FSB security service to suspend passenger flights from Egypt while the cause of the crash was unclear, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
He said the government would find a way to bring Russians back home and would open talks with Egyptian authorities to improve flight safety. Peskov later told reporters the suspension would remain in place until such time as the Kremlin was satisfied that security had been sufficiently improved.
“I think that since Putin made the decision to cancel flights, most likely there is a genuine suspicion that it was a terrorist act. And of course, then it is correct to cancel the flights because it means it is dangerous to fly there,” said Maria Solomatina, 27, an IT consultant with a ticket to travel to Egypt in mid-November.
The Russian Travel Industry Union, cited by Interfax, estimated there were around 50,000 Russian tourists currently in Egypt and said refunding canceled tickets to Egypt could bankrupt Russian tour operators.
Tourist agency Tez Tour, which estimates it sells about 15 percent of trips to Egypt from Russia, said 10,000 of its Russian clients were in Egypt.
“How are they (the authorities) going to bring people back? If people are at a resort and they come to them to say a plane was sent to take you back, they would say: no, we want to be on holiday for two more weeks, we’re not going anywhere. An evacuation order would be needed,” said Vladimir Kaganer, general director of Tez Tour.
British attempts to bring home thousands of stranded tourists were thrown into chaos on Friday when Egypt reduced the number of flights it would allow to take them home.
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.”
The fate of Egypt’s tourist industry, a vital source of hard currency for a struggling economy, is at stake as well as the credibility of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s claims to have brought under control the militants fighting to topple his government.