UK AIRLINES say ‘rescue flights’ are set to start today but, with Cameron talking up terror link, Egypt faces growing crisis
The decision by the UK government to suddenly ground flights from Sharm el-Sheik on Wednesday caught many off guard, not least the thousands of holidaymakers left stranded in the Egyptian resort.
Despite claims of responsibilty from terrorist groups as early as Saturday, the suggestion that Flight 9268 could have been maliciously downed remained but a theory, with some sort of catastrophic malfunction thought to be the more likely cause of a crash which claimed the lives of 224 people.
The prime minister’s decision to suspend flights from UK carriers changed all that, based as it was on undisclosed new evidence that terrorists were indeed behind the incident.
The information left the government in an invidious situation – suspend flights and risk the wrath of grounded tourists and the Egyptians or ignore the warnings and risk something far worse.
It is just a few short months since a gunman opened fire on a Tunisian beach, leaving 38 dead – 30 of them British.
On that occasion, the UK government also upset a foreign government, issuing new travel advice via the Foreign Commonwealth Office which was likely to put off any British tourists still contemplating a trip following the attack.
But put simply, what else can the government do?
Yes, the situation is unpleasant for stranded Britons, around 200 Scots thought to be among them.
But the alternative is too horrific to comprehend: a terrorist attack on a scale which the UK has not had to deal with since Lockerbie. For those on the ground in Sharm it seems the wait to get home is likely to go on.
UK airlines have said “rescue flights” will begin operating from the Red Sea resort today.
EasyJet will operate six additional flights, while Monarch will operate three flights in addition to two scheduled services.
However, the Prime Minister has admitted it is likely to be “some time” before all the British tourists are home safely.
All this has somewhat overshadowed the Downing Street visit of Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who has said security was tightened at his country’s airports ten months ago at the UK’s request. The Egyptian leader said assessments carried out by security experts had found the measures were “good enough”.
But if the attack on the Russian jet turns out to have been a terrorist attack – something David Cameron has said is increasingly likely to have been the case – then President Sisi’s government will come under increasing pressure.
Racked as it is by civil strife, Egypt needs its tourism industry more than ever.
The appearance of the group calling itself Islamic State on the horizon is not something which will encourage many westerners to book package deals.
If we are to believe reports from UK holidaymakers that security at Egypt’s airports was lax in the run-up to Saturday’s incident, then President Sisi will have to bear some responsibility for the position his country finds itself in.
Lockerbie campaign hopes fade
Almost 27 years on from the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, many relatives feel they are no closer to knowing the full details of what happened to their loved ones in the skies above Lockerbie.
Yesterday the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) announced it was dropping its review of the conviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only man convicted of the 1988 atrocity.
The SCCRC said it had been frustrated in its attempts to obtain papers relating to an earlier 2009 appeal, which was dropped by Megrahi after his release on compassionate grounds from Greenock prison.
The body also said it had “little confidence” the Megrahi family was willing to co-operate with the review or to take forward any subsequent appeal, despite claims from campaigners in this country that the family were backing their appeal. Although the Commission decided it was “not in the interests of justice” to continue its review, the SCCRC did leave the door open, however, saying it could be prepared to consider the matter again in the future with the co-operation of Megrahi’s family.
The decision is likely to be a bitter blow for campaigners such as Dr Jim Swire, who lost his daughter Flora in the bombing and has fought tirelessly to clear Megrahi’s name.
It is likely campaigners will continue their fight, but it is becoming more and more difficult to see what they might achieve in practical terms, particularly given the apparent reticence of the Megrahi family to get involved.
Nearly three decades have passed since the Lockerbie bombing. But while some of the relatives of flight 103 victims are satisfied by Megrahi’s conviction, for others the hope of justice seems as distant as ever.