US President Barack Obama and Britain’s prime minister both believe a bomb may have downed a Russian plane in Egypt, with reports Friday suggesting their theory was based on intercepted communications.
With concerns over security mounting, European airlines readied to bring home thousands of tourists from the Sinai peninsula resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, from where the crashed Russian plane took off last Saturday.
But there were angry scenes at the airport as thousands of anxious Britons who had hoped to fly home were sent back to their hotels after Egypt blocked additional repatriation flights.
A first flight took off for London’s Gatwick airport after a long delay.
In a sign of mounting fears about the security of baggage handling in Egypt, Dutch carrier KLM announced that it had banned check-in luggage on an early flight from Cairo, mirroring moves taken by several European airlines on Sharm flights.
The Islamic State (IS) jihadist group has claimed responsibility for the disaster, in which the Saint Petersburg-bound jet crashed minutes after taking off, killing all 224 mainly Russian tourists on board.
Cairo and Moscow have sought to downplay the suggestion of an attack.
But Obama told a US radio station: “I think there is a possibility that there was a bomb on board and we are taking that very seriously,” while emphasising it was too early to say for sure.
In London, where Prime Minister David Cameron hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-SISI on Thursday, the British premier told reporters it was “more likely than not that it was a terrorist bomb” that caused the crash.
And The Times newspaper reported on Friday that electronic communications intercepted by British and US spies suggested a bomb may have been carried onto the plane.
A joint intelligence operation used satellites to uncover the chatter between militants in Sinai and Syria, it said.
“The tone and content of the messages convinced analysts that a bomb had been carried on board by a passenger or a member of the airport ground staff,” the newspaper reported, without giving a source.
The BBC‘s security correspondent Frank Gardner said Britain‘s security services suspect someone with access to the plane’s baggage compartment inserted an explosive device shortly before the plane departed.
– ‘No evidence’ –
But Egypt‘s civil aviation minister Hossam Kamal said there was “as yet no evidence or data confirming the theory” of an attack.
And the Kremlin said Britain had not shared the intelligence on which its bomb suspicions were based.
“We don’t know what data our British colleagues are basing themselves on,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
SISI sought to use his trip to London to allay fears over the safety of tourists in Egypt after several nations suspended flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh — leaving holidaymakers stranded while officials assessed security at the airport.
There is no global or European blanket ban and some flights, including all Russian ones, have continued from the airport.
But France and Belgium have warned citizens against travelling to Sharm el-Sheikh and Britain has advised against all but essential travel by air to or from the resort.
– Angry Britons heckle ambassador –
The British government authorised flights to resume from the resort on Friday to bring home an estimated 20,000 British tourists.
But thousands were turned away after Egypt blocked British tour operators from flying in empty aircraft to make up the backlog.
That meant just three aircraft were expected to get away compared with 29 that had been planned, and the first easyJet flight did not take off until 1:15 pm (1115 GMT), after hours of delay in the departure lounge and on the tarmac.
Britain’s ambassador, John Casson, was heckled as he announced the news.
“When are we going home?” shouted one Briton forced to spend another night in a Sharm hotel. “We don’t know what’s happening.”
There was no immediate word from the Egyptian authorities on the reasons for their move but easy Jet said it was doing all it could to bring its customers home as soon as possible.
“We are working with the UK government at the highest level on a solution,” the airline said in statement.
Those passengers who did fly out were allowed to carry hand luggage only, with their check-in bags to follow separately.
Joining a string of airlines in avoiding Sharm el-Sheikh, the Lufthansa Group announced its subsidiary Eurowings would halt flights between Germany and the Red Sea resort, while Turkish Airlines also cancelled two flights.
If it was behind the attack, it would be the first time IS, which controls large areas of Syria and Iraq, has attacked a passenger plane.
It has the potential to deeply damage Egypt‘s tourism industry, still struggling to recover from a turbulent four years following its 2011 revolution.