Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1276, (31 December 2015 - 6 January 2016))
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1276, (31 December 2015 - 6 January 2016))

Ahram Weekly

In search of suspects

Russia is apparently getting closer to identifying those who brought its plane down, reports Ahmed Morsy

Russian plane
Russian plane
Al-Ahram Weekly

Russian authorities have identified groups that were possibly involved in the bombing of the Metrojet passenger jet that crashed in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on 31 October that resulted in the deaths of all 224 aboard, mostly Russian passengers, head of the Russian Federal Security Services Alexander Bortnikov has said.

“We have determined the approximate origin of the entities that may be related to this,” Bortnikov told the Russia Today news Website, adding that he was unable to declare anything specific. Bortnikov added that “a lot of work needs to be done” to get the full picture of who was involved.

The Russian statement came despite an investigation that has yet to unearth evidence that the downing of the airplane was an act of terrorism. This month, Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry revealed that investigations showed no evidence of any “illegitimate intervention or terrorist act” causing the plane crash. In a statement, the ministry said that the committee tasked with investigating the crash had finished its preliminary report which was sent to all nations involved in the investigation, as well as to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Egyptian Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal told the state-run news agency MENA that the investigation could take “a long time… a year or longer” before reaching conclusive results.

In response to the report, Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov said: “I can only remind you that the report of our experts from the corresponding special services concluded that this was a terrorist act,” Russia’s state-owned newspaper Sputnik reported this month.

Peskov pointed to the official report that Bortnikov had sent to Egypt on 17 November which concluded that a homemade explosive device charged with an equivalent of around one kilogram of TNT severely damaged the airliner shortly after it took off from Sharm El-Sheikh Airport.

“Egypt did not deal with the incident with the required transparency from the very beginning and tried to deny the existence of security negligence,” political scientist Hassan Nafaa told Al-Ahram Weekly. “And hence,” Nafaa says, “we find that there is confusion in the Egyptian statements from one side, and differences in terms of content compared to the Russian statements from the other side”.

Earlier, the Kremlin announced that the results of the Russian investigation said the plane crashed in Sinai minutes after taking off from Sharm El-Sheikh on 31 October. It found that it was an act of terrorism, and suspected that a bomb had been smuggled into the plane.

Russian officials said traces of explosives were discovered among personal belongings, baggage and parts of the aircraft found among the wreckage.

Concerning the Russian identification of groups that were possibly involved in the bombing or the traces of explosives that were discovered among the belongings, Nafaa said: “The Russian side should have informed Egypt with the exact information by which they reached this conclusion. There should be more coordination and cooperation between both sides.”

Speculation of a terrorist attack swelled after the Islamic State-affiliated Province of Sinai militant group claimed responsibility. Immediately after the plane crash, the terrorist group claimed that it had downed the aircraft, which they said was carrying over 220 “Russian crusaders”.

The statement described the incident as a message to the Russians and their allies, indicating that they are not safe in Muslim lands, and that the “attack” on the plane was to avenge the death of “dozens of Syrians on a daily basis by [Russian] air missiles”.

The IS statement prompted Russia to suspend all flights to Egypt starting 6 November. On 14 November, Russian aviation authorities also banned all incoming EgyptAir flights. Prior to Russia’s travel ban, the UK, Ireland and German swiftly suspended their flights to Sharm El-Sheikh and over the Sinai Peninsula.

In another statement, IS added that it would choose the appropriate time to reveal how it brought the plane down. The IS mouthpiece magazine Dabek published photos of the bomb allegedly planted on board.

The incident hit Egypt’s tourism hard. Russian tourists are the mainstay of the Red Sea resort economy.  Around three million Russians visited Egypt in 2014, a significant percentage of the total 9.9 million foreign visitors to Egypt last year.

“The departure of British and Russian tourists from Sharm El-Sheikh was quite harmful to the industry since they represent two-thirds of tourists who visit the city,” the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies in Cairo said in a report issued last week.

“After the downing of the Russian aircraft, official sources predicted that there will be huge losses in the tourism sector in light of messages coming from foreign sources stating that tourist destinations in Egypt are unsafe,” the report said. “Overall, the crisis revealed the desperate need to review the diversity... of tourism and locations and, most importantly, a need to support the institutions that are working in this sector.”

The Egyptian government announced last week that it was appointing the British security firm Control Risks to review and assess airport security in both Cairo and Sharm El-Sheikh airports.

The security review, announced at a news conference by Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou, Civil Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal and Control Risks Regional Chief Executive Andreas Carleton-Smith, aims to help restore confidence and revive tourism, a key foreign currency earner for cash-strapped Egypt.

Zaazou said that London-based Control Risks would begin with assessments of security at Cairo and Sharm El-Sheikh, which receive large numbers of foreign travellers, but would also review security at other Egyptian airports.

The disaster has so far cost Egypt about LE2.2 billion a month in direct losses. Zaazou told Reuters this month that he sees this year’s tourism receipts falling 10 per cent over last year as a result.

“At a time of heightened global security concerns, the Egyptian government is appropriately reviewing airport security,” Carleton-Smith, who is Control Risks CEO for Middle East and North Africa, is quoted as saying in the firm’s press release.

He added that the role of Control Risks would be “to assist the Egyptian government in ensuring that security at these airports meets international best practice and governance standards”.

Kamal stated during the press conference that the security review was in response to a general increase in terrorist operations worldwide, denying any link to the Russian plane disaster.

“Once Egypt resorted to one of the world’s major companies to review security measures in its airports following the downing of the Russian plane, it became a tacit admission that there was a security failure,” Nafaa said. This contract, however, reflects the Egyptian desire to create an atmosphere of tranquillity about the security situation at its airports, he added.

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