Disaster which killed 224 people caused by ‘external impact on plane’ as it emerges Metrojet airline had not paid employees for two months
By Isabelle Fraser, with Raf Sanchez in Cairo, Magdy Samaan in Hassana, and Roland Oliphant in St PetersburgNovember 03, 2015 “Information Clearing House” – “The Telegraph” – Suspicions that foul play or terrorism caused the passenger jet crash in Egypt were growing on Monday as theRussian airline’s owners said the plane could only have been brought down by “external factors”.
“We rule out a technical fault of the plane or a pilot error,” Alexander Smirnov, deputy general director of Metrojet, told a news conference in Moscow.
The claim, which appears to support the theory that the Airbus was destroyed by terrorists, was immediately rebuffed by Egyptian investigators as “speculation” and came as fresh allegations of mismanagement drew the company’s safety record into question.
Flight 9268 to St Petersburg crashed in Egypt’s Sinai peninsular shortly after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh on Saturday morning.
All 224 crew and passengers, many of them holidaymakers from St Petersburg, were killed in the worst single disaster in Russian aviation history.
In his first public comments on the disaster, Vladimir Putin said the crash was a “dreadful tragedy” and calling for a “fully objective” investigation.
“I would like to once again express my condolences to the families and relatives of the victims,” Mr Putin said at a meeting with Maksim Sokolov, the Russian transport minister and the head of the Russian commission investigating the causes of the crash. “In our hearts and souls we are with you.”
“Without any doubt everything should be done so that an objective picture of what happened is created, so that we know what happened,” he added.
Mr Putin did not address mounting speculation about the cause of the disaster, and the Kremlin said separately that it would be “improper” to comment before investigators have reported.
“No possibility can be excluded at this stage,” said Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman. “Articulating any kind of preliminary guess, any kind of opinion or statement without basis, would be wrong.”
Earlier in the day, the head of Metrojet, the company that operated the aircraft, moved to rule out any internal malfunction or pilot error. “The only possible could be a purely mechanical external impact,” Alexander Smirnov, the company’s deputy director told a news conference in Moscow.
When pressed for more details about the type of impact and what could have caused it, Mr Smirnov refused to discuss further details, citing the ongoing investigation.
Asked if the plane could have been brought down by a terror attack, he said only that “anything was possible.”
The Egyptian government immediately pushed back, saying that it would not stoop to commenting on “speculation.”
Abdel Hamid, a spokesman for the Civil Aviation ministry said that an “external factors” could mean many things “not only a bomb or a terrorist attack”.
There is potential for Cairo and Moscow to argue over the outcome of the investigation because of the potential impacts of the findings.
A successful and devastating terrorist attack on tourists could prove a major embarrassment and disastrous for the Egyptian travel industry, while for Russia mechanical or human failure would raise difficult questions about the state of the national aviation industry, while a finding of terrorism could rally the public behind the air war against Islamists in Syria.
Earlier in the day, the Russian newspaper Kommersant quoted anonymous aviation experts as saying the damage suffered by the Airbus A321 suggested it may have been destroyed by “explosive decompression of the fuselage.”
Experts said such a decompression could have been caused by stress-cracks in the fuselage, the external impact of flying objects – possibly including fragments of a malfunctioning engine – or an on-board explosion, possibly indicating a Lockerbie-style bomb attack.
An affiliate of the Isil terror group in the Sinai peninsular has claimed responsibility for bringing down the plane, but US officials have dismissed the group’s claim as not credible.
Jim Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, said there is “no direct evidence of terrorist involvement yet.”
Asked whether Isil could shoot down an aircraft, he said, “it’s unlikely but I wouldn’t rule it out.”
While insurgents in Sinai are believed to have shoulder-launched anti-aircraft rockets, or MANPADS, Isil is not known to possess any sophisticated ground-to-air missile system capable shooting down an aircraft at an airliner’s cruising altitude.
Executives at the airline of the doomed airliner Metrojet announced that it came down due to “external impact”, and not technical faults or human error.
Metrojet executive Alexander Smirnov said that the plane was “flying out of control – that is, it wasn’t flying, it was falling.”
He also defended the airline from claims that it had not paid its staff for over two years, and that the plane had suffered a tail strike in previous years, which had been repaired fully.
The plane’s black boxes have not yet been analysed, although one source told Reuters that the jet was not struck from the outside.
There has been growing speculation in the Russian media that flight 7K9268 may have been destroyed by an on-board explosion.
Russian and Egyptian authorities have both played down claims that the plane was brought down by Isil, as the group has claimed.
Vladimir Putin called for an objective investigation into the disaster. “Without any doubt everything should be done so that an objective picture of what happened is created, so that we know what happened,” he added. “This work should be continued until we are fully sure that this stage is complete,” he said.
The Egyptian government also pushed back on assertions by Metrojet that their Airbus A321 did not suffer a technical fault and was instead brought down by an “external impact”.
US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said he could not rule out involvement of Isil in the crash, but said that it was “unlikely”, adding that “We don’t have any direct evidence of any terrorist involvement yet,”
An aerial picture reveals the spread of the debris in the Sinai desert