Russian airliner crashes in Sinai with 224 people onboard

The Egyptian prime minister's office confirmed the incident and said a crisis committee has been formed.

Cairo // All 224 people aboard a Russian charter flight were killed when their plane crashed in a mountainous part of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on Saturday.

The Airbus A321 with 214 Russian and three Ukranian passengers and seven crew, had taken off from the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh in south Sinai on Saturday morning, bound for Saint Petersburg. It lost contact with air traffic control 23 minutes later.

“Unfortunately, all passengers of Kogalymavia flight 9268 Sharm El Sheikh-Saint Petersburg have died. We issue condolences to family and friends,” the Russian embassy in Cairo said.

The Egyptian prime minister’s office said 129 bodies and both of the plane’s black boxes had been recovered from the crash site, about 100 kilometres south of the northern Sinai town of El Arish. One of the boxes is for cockpit voice recordings and the other for flight data.

The bodies and debris were spread over an area of about five square kilometres.

Egyptian aviation officials said the charter flight was flying at 30,000 feet when communication was lost and that the pilot had reported technical trouble and was seeking to land at the nearest airport.

An Egyptian affiliate of ISIL claimed it downed the plane in revenge for Russian air strikes againt the extremist group in Syria, but this was dismissed by Egyptian and Russian officials.

The Russian transport minister Maksim Sokolov said the ISIL claim “cannot be considered accurate”, adding that authorities in Egypt “have no such information that would confirm such insinuations”.

Military experts said ISIL in Sinai did not have surface-to-air missiles capable of hitting a plane at high altitude.

But they could not exclude the possibility of a bomb on board or a surface-to-air missile strike if the aircraft had descended for an emergency landing.

Air France and Lufthansa said they would stop flying over the Sinai peninsula until the cause of the crash was established.

A senior Egyptian air traffic control official said the pilot told him in their last communication that he had radio trouble.

Russian aviation official Sergei Izvolsky told Interfax news agency the aircraft took off from Sharm El Sheikh at 5.51am but did not make contact as expected with Cyprus air traffic control.

“At 7.14 Moscow time the crew was scheduled to make contact with ... Larnaca. However, this did not happen and the plane disappeared from the radar screens.”

The Kremlin said president Vladimir Putin ordered rescue teams dispatched to Egypt.

Kogalymavia, which operates under the name Metrojet, says it has two A320s and seven A321s, and that it carried 779,626 passengers in the first nine months of 2015, according to the Russian aviation agency Rosaviatsia.

Russia has a dismal air safety record, with charter operators often under pressure to book to capacity on ageing jets in an attempt to cut costs.

No representative of the airline could be found at the airport in Saint Petersburg and calls to company phones went unanswered.

Kogalymavia is a small regional carrier that flies mostly international charter services.

Russia’s regional carriers are notorious, and the crash is likely to raise renewed concerns about the safety of air travel in a country with an ageing fleet of airliners.

The last major air crash in Egypt was in 2004, when a Flash Airlines Boeing 737 plunged into the Red Sea after taking off from Sharm El Sheikh.

All 148 people on board, most of whom were French, died.

Millions of tourists, many of them Russian, visit the area, one of Egypt’s major attractions for its pristine beaches and scuba diving.

Resorts dotting the Red Sea coast are heavily secured by the military and police, as an extremist insurgency rages in north Sinai bordering Israel and the Gaza Strip.

* Agence France-Presse