Russia plays down IS terror link to plane crash

A woman lights a candle in a church in St Petersburg during a day of national mourning. Picture: AP

A woman lights a candle in a church in St Petersburg during a day of national mourning. Picture: AP

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THE Russian passenger plane that crashed in Egypt, killing everyone on board, broke up at high altitude, Russia’s top aviation official said, raising further doubts about the likelihood of a terrorist attack being responsible.

The Metrojet plane, bound for St Petersburg in Russia, crashed 23 minutes after it took off from Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Saturday morning. The 224 people on board, all Russian except for four Ukrainians and one Belarusian, died.

Fragments of the plane were found scattered over a large area, indicating it disintegrated high in the air, said Alexander Neradko, head of Russia’s federal aviation agency. Neradko, along with two Russian cabinet ministers, were in Egypt inspecting the crash site in a remote part of the northern Sinai Peninsula, where Egypt is fighting an Islamic insurgency.

However, Neradko would not comment on a possible reason for the crash, saying the probe was ongoing.

And Viktor Sorochenko, director of the Intergovernmental Aviation Committee, said it was too early to conclude what caused the disaster.

Russian and Egyptian officials have so far played down reports of terrorism after Islamic State-linked militants, the Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province) group, claimed responsibility for downing the jet.

Egypt’s ambassador to the UK, Nasser Kamel, said early indications suggest the crash had “nothing to do with a terrorist attack”.

“No terrorist organisation has the capacity to target a plane at 30,000ft,” he said.

Yesterday, an Egyptian ground service official who conducted a pre-flight inspection of the Airbus A321-200 said the plane appeared to be in good condition.

The Egyptian official said he was a member of a technical inspection team that included two Russians.

“We are all shocked. It was a good plane. Everything checked out in 35 minutes,” the official said. The closest the plane came to being in trouble, he said, was three months ago when the pilot aborted takeoff halfway through because of a system error.

However, a Russian TV channel late on Saturday quoted the wife of the co-pilot as saying her husband had complained about the plane’s condition. Natalya Trukhacheva, identified as the wife of co-pilot Sergei Trukhachev, said a daughter “called him up before he flew out. He complained before the flight that the technical condition of the aircraft left much to be desired.”

Another Egyptian official had previously said that before the plane lost contact with air traffic controllers the pilot had radioed and said the aircraft was experiencing technical problems and that he intended to try and land at the nearest airport.

In St Petersburg, hundreds of people brought flowers and pictures to the city’s airport to commemorate the 224 victims. Elena Vikhareva, 48, went with her son to lay flowers, saying “pain is piercing her heart” even though she had no relatives on the plane. Vladimir Povarov, 19, brought flowers with a friend, saying “we couldn’t remain indifferent.”

Meanwhile, Dubai-based Emirates, the Middle East’s largest carrier, said it has stopped flying over Egypt’s Sinai until more is known about the crash.

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