LONDON –– Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron said today it was increasingly likely that a bomb brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt with the loss of 224 lives, setting him at odds with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
Britain, Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands have suspended flights to and from Sharm al-Sheikh, leaving thousands of European tourists stranded in the Red Sea resort where the plane took off from. A spokesperson for Cameron later said flights from the resort destination to Britain would resume tomorrow.
Egypt, which depends on tourism as a crucial source of revenue, said the decision to suspend flights was unjustified and should be reversed at once. It said there was no evidence a bomb was to blame.
A Sinai-based group affiliated to Islamic State, the militant group that has seized swathes of Iraq and Syria, has claimed responsibility for the crash, which if confirmed would make it the first attack on civil aviation by the world’s most violent jihadist organization.
Moscow, which launched air strikes against Islamist fighters, including Islamic State in Syria more than a month ago, says it was premature to reach conclusions that the flight was attacked.
In a telephone call, Putin told Cameron it was important that assessments of the cause of the crash be based on information from the official investigation, Interfax news agency reported.
Cameron, who hosted Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi today for a previously scheduled visit, said: “We cannot be certain that the Russian airliner was brought down by a terrorist bomb, but it looks increasingly likely that was the case.”
His Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said it was “a significant possibility” Islamic State was responsible, given a range of information, including the claim of responsibility.
Britain said it was working with airlines and Egyptian authorities to put in place additional security and screening measures at the airport to allow Britons to get home. It hoped flights bound for Britain could leave tomorrow.
If a bomb brought down the Airbus A321, that would devastate Egypt’s tourism industry, still recovering from years of political turmoil. Shares in holiday companies Thomas Cook and TUI Group fell.
US Representative Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said on Fox News that evidence so far indicated an Islamic State attack “with an explosive device in the airplane”.
While Egypt has bristled at the suspensions of flights, Sisi said during his visit to London that he understood countries’ concerns about safety. He said Cairo had been asked ten months ago to check security at the airport
in Sharm al-Sheikh.
“We understood their concern because they are really interested in the safety and security of their nationals,” he added.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said Russian planes were still flying to and from Sharm al-Sheikh.
“Theories about what happened and the causes of the incident can only be pronounced by the investigation,” Peskov said.
Egypt’s Minister of Civil Aviation Hossam Kamal said investigators so far had no evidence to support the explosion theory. Russian aviation agency Rosaviatsia said investigators would examine whether there was any explosive material on the plane.
Security experts and investigators have said the plane is unlikely to have been struck from the outside and Sinai militants are not believed to have any missiles capable of striking a jet at 30,000 feet. Russia’s Kogalymavia Airline, which operated the crashed plane, said three of its four remaining A321 jets had passed Russian safety checks, while the fourth would be checked shortly.