224 Russians die in Sinai plane crash

224 Russians die in Sinai plane crash

Relatives of passengers on the Metrojet Airbus A321 weep at Pulkovo II international airport in St Petersburg as they await news about the crash of the plane in Egypt on Saturday. (EPA Photo)
Relatives of passengers on the Metrojet Airbus A321 weep at Pulkovo II international airport in St Petersburg as they await news about the crash of the plane in Egypt on Saturday. (EPA Photo)

CAIRO — A Russian aircraft carrying 224 people crashed on Saturday in a remote mountainous region of the Sinai Peninsula about 20 minutes after taking off from a Red Sea resort popular with Russian tourists.

Egyptian military and security officials said there were no survivors from among the 217 passengers — 138 women, 62 men and 17 children — and seven crew members aboard the aircraft. Most of the bodies recovered so far from the site were burned, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Russian Embassy in Cairo also confirmed that everyone on board had perished.

"Unfortunately, all passengers of Kogalymavia flight 9268 Sharm el-Sheikh-Saint Petersburg have died. We issue condolences to family and friends," said a message posted on the embassy's Facebook page.

All but three of the passengers and crew were Russian citizens, Egyptian authorities said. The other three were Ukrainians.

A civil aviation ministry statement said that Egyptian military search and rescue teams found the wreckage of the Airbus A321-200 in the Hassana area, 70 kilometres south of the city of el-Arish, an area in northern Sinai where Egyptian security forces have for years battled a burgeoning Islamic militant insurgency which is now led by a local affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group.

Islamic State issued a statement later on Saturday claiming to have shot down the plane. However, Russia's transport minister said the claim "cannot be considered accurate".

The plane had taken off from Sharm el-Sheikh shortly before 6am local time for St Petersburg in Russia and disappeared from radar screens 23 minutes after takeoff.

Egyptian officials said the aircraft was cruising at 31,000 feet when contact with air traffic controllers was lost.

Russian news reports quoted a website called FlightRadar 24, which tracks air traffic around the globe, as saying the plane was descending at a rate of 6,000 feet per minute just before it disappeared from radar.

Both Egyptian and Russian authorities rejected speculation that the crash could be linked to insurgent activities in the area.

Militants in northern Sinai have not to date shot down commercial airliners or fighter jets. There have been media reports that they have acquired Russian shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles. But these types of missiles can only be effective against low-flying aircraft or helicopters. In January 2014, Sinai-based militants claimed to have shot down a military helicopter; Egyptian officials at the time acknowledged the helicopter had crashed, but gave no reason.

Civil Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal said an investigative team had arrived at the crash site to examine the debris and locate the flight's recorders.

Separately, Russia's Investigative Committee, the country's top investigative body, has opened an investigation, according to a statement issued by committee spokesman Sergei Markin.

Earlier in the day, an Egyptian official with the government's Aviation Incidents Committee told local media that the plane had briefly lost contact but was safely in Turkish airspace.

Later, the same official, Ayman al-Muqadem, said the plane had crashed and that the pilot, before losing contact, had radioed that the aircraft was experiencing technical problems and that he intended to try and land at the nearest airport. The aircraft crashed at a site near the el-Arish airport, he said.

It was not immediately possible to independently confirm that technical problems caused the plane to crash. Aircraft crew members had complained earlier about the state of one engine, the RIA Novosti agency reported.

Airbus said that the A321-200 aircraft was 18 years old and had been operated by the privately owned charter carrier MetroJet, formerly known as Kogalymavia, since 2012. The aircraft had accumulated around 56,000 flight hours in nearly 21,000 flights. It was powered by IAE-V2500 engines.

Airbus said it was ready to provide full technical assistance to the authorities in charge of the investigation.

Adel Mahgoub, chairman of the state company that runs Egypt's civilian airports, said the aircraft had successfully undergone technical checks while at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport. A technical committee from the company was headed to Sharm el-Sheikh to collect security camera footage of the plane while it sat at the airport, including operations to supply it with fuel and passenger meals as well security checks, he said.

Roughly 3 million Russian tourists, or nearly a third of all visitors in 2014, come to Egypt every year, mostly to Red Sea resorts in Sinai or in mainland Egypt.

"It is too premature to detect the impact this will have on tourism. We need to know what happened first,'' Tourism Ministry spokeswoman Rasha Azazi told The Associated Press.

At Saint Petersburg's Pulkovo airport, anxious family members awaited news of their loved ones.

"I am meeting my parents," said 25-year-old Ella Smirnova. "I spoke to them last on the phone when they were already on the plane, and then I heard the news.

"I will keep hoping until the end that they are alive, but perhaps I will never see them again."

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