6 Nov 2015

Putin suspends Russian flights to Egypt

Moscow suspending passenger flights to Egypt after the Sinai air crash, just a day after suggesting Britain had acted prematurely by grounding jets.

Vladimir Putin (Reuters)

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russian President Vladimir Putin had agreed to the move after the head of Russia’s FSB security service said flights should stop until the cause of Saturday’s crash is known.

Alexander Bortnikov said: “Until we know the real reasons for what happened, I consider it expedient to stop Russian flights to Egypt. Above all, this concerns tourist routes.”

On Thursday Mr Putin appeared to criticise Britain’s moves to suspend passenger flights, saying that “assessment of the causes of the crash should be based on the data that would become available in the course of the official investigation that is currently underway”.

Russia and Egypt have both taken issue with the British government’s suggestion that a bomb may be the most likely cause of deaths of 224 people at the weekend.

Stranded tourists

Mr Putin has ordered the Russian government to draft a mechanism for getting the estimated 45,000 Russian citizens currently on holiday in Egypt back from the country.

Some 20,000 British tourists are still believed to be stranded at the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Only eight flights will now depart from Sharm during the course of Friday, rather than the 29 initially expected, the Egyptian authorities have said.

British tourist in Sharm el-Sheikh airport

Egypt’s civil aviation minister said the volume of luggage being left behind by British passengers – who have been told they cannot take suitcases on to planes as a security precaution – has disrupted plans to fly all Britons home by the end of the day.

Travellers at Sharm el-Sheikh airport have complained about airlines making confusing and misleading announcements about flights.

We are making progress here in Sharm al-Sheikh this morning. Ambassador John Casson

Speaking at the airport, Britain’s ambassador to Egypt John Casson said: “We are making progress here in Sharm al-Sheikh this morning. The first two British flights are boarding as we speak and will be leaving for the UK in the next few minutes with 180 passengers each on board.

“Based on the package of additional security measures that we have agreed in very good collaboration with Egyptian authorities and our aim is to get as many people home as soon as possible.”

But the ambassador faced angry comments from hecklers as he spoke to reporters.

Sinai crash site (Reuters)

Terror claims

The UK Government suspended flights on Wednesday after an Airbus 321 operated by Russian airline Metrojet crashed in the Sinai peninsula on Saturday, killing all 224 people on board.

An Islamist terror group linked to the so-called Islamic State have claimed they downed the aircraft, a claim initially rejected by Russia and Egypt.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said information obtained by UK officials indicated there was a “high probability” that the aircraft was brought down by a bomb, but he was still waiting for final confirmation.

There have been reports that security agencies intercepted communications between militants in Sinai suggesting there was a bomb on the plane.

Putin U-turn

Mr Putin telephoned Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday after Britain suspended flights and Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands followed suit.

Asked whether the Russian leader had criticised the UK’s actions, a Downing Street spokesman said: “The President underlined that he thought all countries should wait for the investigation to be completed.

“The Prime Minister was very clear that he will be driven by what is right for the safety of British citizens and that we were right to take the action that we did based on the information that we had in front of us and our assessment of the situation.”

The Kremlin said its decision to suspend flights this afternoon did not mean the crash was caused by a terrorist attack.

Mr Putin’s spokesman said he agreed with the recommendations from the FSB.

Security analyst Tim Williams, managing director of corporate intelligence firm Stirling Assynt, said Russia and Egypt were both growing frustrated by British and US suggestsions that Flight 9268 was brought down by terrorists.

He said Mr Putin’s decision to launch military strikes against anti-Assad forces in Syria, including IS, carried risks.

“There was a mixed reaction at home in terms of his initial decision to go into Syria, and it was seemingly the case that the Kremlin saw it as a relatively short-term measure. The longer it goes on, the more Russia could be drawn into that conflict, the more risk there will be embarrassing attacks.

“All of that risks playing badly at home in the long-term for Putin, and he is walking a rather thin line right now, to try to be seen to be tough, to respond, but also not to be drawn too far into this fight.”

There are huge risks to the Egyptian government – the tourist industry is absolutely critical to their economy. Tim Williams

He added: “There are huge risks to the Egyptian government – the tourist industry is absolutely critical to their economy.

“Sharm el-Sheikh is at the centre of that, and they are very, very assertively trying to control the narrative around this, so they can try and minimise damage to their sector, and to try and ensure that they retain the support of a significant proportion of the Egyptian population, and deliver economic progress to them.”

Mr Williams said the jihadi group Ansar Jerusalem, or Wilayat Sinai, were the most likely culprits, saying the group had recently begun to target Western interests in the region and had travelled to Syria via Libya to meet senior IS figures, probably acquiring “significant bomb-making expertise in doing so”.