U-turn as Russia Bans all Egypt Flights

Published: 07th November 2015 08:16 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th November 2015 09:14 AM   |  A+A-

Flight-Reuters

An aircraft files near the setting sun in New Delhi | REUTERS

LONDON/MOSCOW: Vladimir Putin grounded all Russian flights to and from Egypt last night (Friday0 in the first signal that he now fears a bomb brought down Metrojet Flight 9268.

The Russian president also ordered the evacuation of more than 45,000 of his citizens currently holidaying in Egypt. The unexpected announcement came just 24 hours after he accused David Cameron of acting hastily by suspending British flights on Wednesday amid fears the Russian passenger jet had been attacked by terrorists.

Russia had initially refused to draw any conclusions as to what caused the plane to crash killing all 224 people on board, insisting that investigations were ongoing. But Mr Putin then took more extreme steps than Britain by stopping all flights to Egypt.

The UK has only suspended planes flying to and from Sharm el-Sheikh.

The announcement came just minutes after Russia's top spy publicly called for Russian airlines to halt flights to Egypt until the cause of Saturday's air disaster became clear.

It is not known what caused the sudden change of heart, but Sir Kim Darroch, Britain's National Security Adviser, spoke to his Russian counterpart on Thursday evening to share details of the intelligence that lay behind Mr Cameron's decision to ground flights.

British intelligence agencies are believed to have intercepted "chatter" amongst terrorist groups in Sinai that suggests an affiliate of Isil was behind Russia's worst ever air disaster.

Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia's federal security service, said at a rare public meeting of the country's anti-terrorism committee: "Until we have established the causes of this incident I think it appropriate to halt Russian flights to Egypt; this primarily concerns tourism."

Moments later, the Kremlin announced that Mr Putin agreed with the suggestion, and ordered the government to suspend flights and develop an action plan for bringing Russians in Egypt home.

Earlier, Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin's spokesman, had said Britain had not passed on its intelligence.

Alexander Puchkov, the head of Russia's emergency situations ministry, said that all wreckage, luggage, and earth from the crash site was being tested in Moscow for traces of explosives. "I can say with absolute confidence that if there are explosive traces, they will be found," he said.

The evacuation presents massive logistical challenges. About 60 per cent of the 45,000 Russians in Egypt are in Sharm el-Sheikh, and most of the rest in Hurghada on the Red Sea coast.

Russia's tourism agency said last night it had established an "operational headquarters" to coordinate the evacuation, but one Russian official warned it may take a month to get all the citizens home.

It also represents a body blow to Egypt's struggling tourism industry, already stung by the suspension of flights from Britain, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, among other countries. Russia's association of tour agencies said the decision cuts off its biggest market and sets Egypt on a "direct path to bankruptcy." If the Metrojet Airbus was destroyed by a bomb, it would be Russia's worst terrorist attack since the Beslan school siege in 2004.

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