, Moscow, Nov 3 – A top US intelligence official has said there is no direct evidence of terrorism in the crash of a Russian passenger jet in Egypt that killed all 224 people on board, after the airline said it came down due to “external” factors.
Analysis of the plane’s “black boxes” is expected to begin on Tuesday, according to Egyptian officials. Russia’s aviation authority has said the devices, which could solve the mystery of what happened to the doomed jet, are in good condition.
Both Cairo and Moscow have played down a claim by Egypt’s Islamic State group (IS) branch that it brought down the Kogalymavia Airbus A-321 which was bound for St Petersburg in Russia from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
The US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Monday he could not rule out IS involvement in Saturday’s crash, but thought it “unlikely”.
“We don’t have any direct evidence of any terrorist involvement yet,” he said.
Investigators are examining all possible causes as they comb the remote crash site in the Sinai peninsula as part of an Egyptian-led probe into the disaster that also involves experts from Russia, Airbus, and Ireland, where the aircraft was registered.
Senior Kogalymavia executive Alexander Smirnov said that “no technical failures” could account for why the Airbus 321 would have broken up in mid-air.
“The only explanation is some kind of external action,” Smirnov told a news conference in Moscow, without elaborating, adding that the doomed jet was in “excellent technical condition”.
He said the firm had ruled out a technical fault or human error and that the plane had sustained “significant damage to its construction that did not allow it to continue the flight.”
“The crew totally lost control and for that reason there was not one attempt to get in contact and report on the accident situation on board,” Smirnov said. The plane was “flying out of control — that is, it wasn’t flying, it was falling.”
– Premature –
Alexander Neradko, head of Russia’s aviation authority, criticised the airline’s comments, saying they were “premature and not based on any real facts”.
Russia has a dismal air safety record, and while larger carriers have begun upgrading ageing fleets, the crash is likely to raise concerns about smaller airlines such as Kogalymavia.
Russia said it hoped its crews would complete their search mission at the remote location on Monday evening, where so far investigators have found 12 segments of the plane’s fuselage.
President Vladimir Putin described the crash, Russia’s worst air disaster, as a “huge tragedy”.
“Without any doubt everything must be done to create an objective picture of events so that we know what happened and can react accordingly,” he said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that in the investigation Moscow “cannot exclude any version” but warned against “guessing” the cause of the crash.
Analysts have dismissed claims the jet could have been shot down by IS-affiliated groups in the region if it was flying at its cruising height of 30,000 feet (9,000 metres), but did not rule out that a bomb might have been planted on board.
– ‘Meticulous work’ –
Relatives of those who died in the crash have begun the painful process of identifying their loved ones after a first plane delivered the remains of 140 victims to Saint Petersburg.
“The process of identification has begun. It is complex, meticulous work,” Saint Petersburg deputy governor Igor Albin told journalists outside the crematorium where the remains are being stored.
Earlier in the day, cars ferried relatives of the dead — overwhelmingly Russian holidaymakers from the Saint Petersburg area — to the crematorium. A second plane is due to carry the rest of the remains to Russia.
Family members had already been providing DNA samples at a crisis centre set up near Saint Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport, now the site of an impromptu memorial where people have brought flowers and cuddly toys to commemorate the victims, many of them children.
The Kremlin said multiple condolence messages kept coming from all over the world including from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and US Secretary of State John Kerry.