US boosts security at Mideast airports, Russia suspends Egypt air travel

The US Department of Homeland Security announced new security measures on Friday at some foreign airports for flights into the US, and Russia suspended all air travel to Egypt, amid mounting intelligence that a bomb brought down the Russian passenger plane that crashed last Saturday in the Sinai, killing all 224 people aboard.

A day earlier, the United Kingdom suspended all flights over the restive Sinai Peninsula, following French carrier Air France and Germany’s Lufthansa, both of which banned flights to the area last week.

The Islamic State terror group in Egypt, also known as Wilayat Sinai, has claimed responsibility for bringing down the plane, claiming that it was an act of retribution for Russian air strikes against the group in Syria.

The White House said the US would ask for increased security for less than 10 airports, all in the Middle East,according to a Reuters report.

White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, said the new measures were a “prudent response” to the incident.

An investigation into the crash has been ongoing, with Egypt and Russia initially dismissing the Islamic State’s claims of responsibility. But US and UK officials, including President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron have said that there were strong indications an explosive device brought down the aircraft.

Sources close to the probe said Friday that an analysis of black boxes from the plane which took off from Sharm el-Sheik en route to St.Peteresburg pointed to a “violent end” in the form of bomb attack.

The flight data and voice recorders showed “everything was normal” until both failed at 24 minutes after takeoff, pointing to “a very sudden explosive decompression,” one source said.

The data “strongly favors” the theory a bomb on board had brought down the plane, he added.

Another source said the plane had gone down suddenly and violently.

The Times newspaper reported Friday that electronic communications intercepted by British and US intelligence suggested a bomb may have been carried onto the plane.

Satellites uncovered chatter between militants in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula 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.

Meanwhile, British airlines were scrambling to evacuate passengers in Sharm el-Sheikh after cancelling flights to the Red Sea resort from which the doomed Airbus had taken off Saturday.

One of the black boxes recovered from the crash site showed that the plane suffered “a violent, sudden” end, a source close to the case in Paris told AFP.

The flight data recorder showed that “everything was normal during the flight, absolutely normal, and suddenly there was nothing.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered flights halted on the recommendation of his security chief, the Kremlin said, although Moscow had previously downplayed reports that a bomb caused the crash.

At an emergency meeting, the head of Russia’s FSB security service, Alexander Bortnikov, said it would be prudent to halt flights for now.

“Until we have determined the true reasons for what happened, I consider it expedient to stop flights by Russian aviation to Egypt,” he said.

According to Reuters, which cites the Russian Travel Industry Union, there are an estimated 50,000 Russian tourists currently in Egypt.

Debris of the A321 Russian airliner a day after the plane crashed in Wadi al-Zolomat, a mountainous area in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, on November 1, 2015. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)

Debris of the A321 Russian airliner a day after the plane crashed in Wadi al-Zolomat, a mountainous area in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, on November 1, 2015. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)

With international concerns mounting, European airlines prepared to bring home thousands of tourists from the Red Sea resort, which has been a jewel in Egypt’s tourism crown.

A first flight landed at London’s Gatwick airport Friday afternoon, after a lengthy delay to its departure. Another plane was also headed for Britain.

There were angry scenes at the airport as thousands of anxious Britons, who had also hoped to fly home, were sent back to their hotels after Egypt blocked several other repatriation flights.

British Ambassador John Casson was heckled as he announced the news.

Egyptian Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal said only eight of 29 flights would take off because the airport could not cope with all the luggage left behind.

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.

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