Newspaper article International New York Times

Egypt Resists Possibility of Bombing in Plane Crash ; Refusal Leaves Cairo Increasingly Isolated as Russia Suspends Flights

Newspaper article International New York Times

Egypt Resists Possibility of Bombing in Plane Crash ; Refusal Leaves Cairo Increasingly Isolated as Russia Suspends Flights

Article excerpt

The government of Egypt is finding itself increasingly isolated in its stubborn resistance to the possibility that a terrorist's bomb brought down the plane.

Six days after the crash of a Russian charter flight taking off from Sharm el Sheikh airport, the government of Egypt found itself increasingly isolated on Friday in its stubborn resistance to the possibility that a terrorist's bomb brought down the plane.

Britain has concluded the cause was most likely a bomb. President Obama has said pointedly that he takes the possibility "very seriously." After standing arm in arm with Egypt for six days in discouraging any such discussion of terrorism, even Russia on Friday suspended its flights to Egypt, stranding tens of thousands of Russian tourists at the resort.

According to a European official who has been briefed on the crash investigation, the cockpit voice recorder captured a sound aboard the Russian jet that was thought to be an explosion. Investigators are trying to confirm if the timing of the sound corresponds with the abrupt end of the flight data recorder.

But the government of Egypt, critically dependent on the hard currency tourists bring to Sharm el Sheikh's resorts, has steadfastly dismissed any every suggestion of a bombing as "premature," "surprising" and "unwarranted."

The widening chasm between Egypt and the rest of the world, some say, recalls an earlier crash, in 1999, when EgyptAir Flight 990 plunged into the ocean off the coast of Nantucket, the Massachusetts island. Although flight records quickly pointed to the decisions of an Egyptian pilot, the Egyptian government still insists that the crash was the result of a malfunction in the Boeing airplane, and 17 years later the Egyptian-American dispute over the cause is still unresolved.

"I don't anticipate the Egyptian investigation here to be any more transparent than their work on EgyptAir 990," said James E. Hall, the former head of the National Transportation Safety Board who oversaw that investigation.

The desires of Egypt's political leaders to minimize the threat of terrorism, he said, will almost certainly set the course of its investigators. "The air safety investigators in Egypt are under the thumb of the government," Mr. Hall said, "and I don't think that has changed."

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, with 20,000 British citizens vacationing in Sharm el Sheikh, has declared most forcefully that a bomb is the most likely explanation. He took the extraordinary step this past week of suspending flights in and out of the airport for more than 24 hours, until new security measures could be put in place, leaving thousands of desperate vacationers still scrambling to get home on Friday as the first flights resumed.

Several British news outlets, citing anonymous officials, reported on Friday that the government based its conclusion about a bombing in part on telephone surveillance of Egyptian militants in the Sinai Peninsula, and reports focused on the chance that an airport employee might have planted an explosive.

Mr. Obama, for his part, raised the same possibility on Thursday night in a radio interview, dispensing with the customary boilerplate about awaiting the results of a continuing investigation.

"There is a possibility that there was a bomb on board," he said. "And we are taking that very seriously."

Russia, which had initially joined Egypt in playing down the possibility of a bomb, appeared to switch sides on Friday, suspending all flights to Egypt, pending a conclusion of the inquiry.

Under international aviation rules, representatives from France, Ireland, Russia and Germany are also included in the official committee investigating the crash because of various connections to the plane or the flight, and European officials briefed on the inquiry say others in the committee have urged the Egyptians to disclose more.

But the only statement from the Egyptian Ministry of Aviation on Friday conveyed mainly pique at the British for not only suspending their flights but also requiring separate planes to carry passengers' baggage back home. …

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