, EL-HASSNA, Egypt, Nov 1 – International investigators on Sunday began probing why a Russian airliner carrying 224 people crashed in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, killing everyone on board, as rescue workers widened their search for missing victims.
An army officer involved in the efforts said search crews had recovered 163 bodies so far, including the body of a girl found eight kilometres (five miles) from the bulk of the wreckage from Saturday’s crash.
Flags were flying at half mast in Russia on Sunday and entertainment television programmes were cancelled as part of a national day of mourning for the victims, most of them Russians, aged from 10 months to 77 years.
The Egyptian government said there were 214 Russian and three Ukranian passengers on board, and seven crew members.
Cairo and Moscow have both downplayed the claim from the Islamic State group branch in Egypt that it brought down the aircraft flown by the Kogalymavia airline, operating under the name Metrojet, en route from Sharm el-Sheikh to Saint Petersburg.
Egyptian Prime Minister Sharif Ismail said experts had confirmed the militants could not down a plane at the 30,000 feet (9,000 metres) altitude at which the Airbus 321 was flying, while Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said the claim “cannot be considered accurate”.
A Russian team including Sokolov and emergency minister Vladimir Puchkov arrived at the scene of the wreckage in a remote part of the restive Sinai Peninsula, Russian official media reported quoting a ministerial aide.
Two air accident investigators from France — Airbus’s home country — are also to travel to Egypt along with six experts from the aerospace giant to help with the probe.
Germany’s Lufthansa, Emirates and Air France all said they would halt flights over Sinai until the reasons behind the crash became clear.
The plane lost contact with air traffic control 23 minutes after taking off from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Saturday morning.
– ‘Nothing abnormal’ –
Wreckage and dead bodies were found scattered over an area of six to eight square kilometres (two and a half to three square miles), around 100 kilometres south of the town of El-Arish, Egyptian officials said.
An Egyptian officer said on Sunday that the search perimeter would be widened to 15 kilometres.
“We found a three-year-old girl eight kilometres from the scene” of the main wreckage, he told AFP from a military base in El-Hassna, around 60 kilometres from the crash site.
Many of the bodies were missing limbs, said the officer, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to media.
The IS affiliate waging an insurgency in the Sinai claimed it brought down the plane in revenge for Russian air strikes against the group in Syria.
But experts rejected the idea they have either the equipment or expertise to hit the flight, which an Egyptian official said was flying at some 30,000 feet when communication was lost.
To reach a plane at that altitude “you would need hard-to-use missiles, so it seems unlikely,” added Jean-Paul Troadec, former director of France’s BEA aviation investigation agency.
“This requires trained people and equipment that IS does not have, to my knowledge.”
Experts said a surface-to-air missile strike could have taken place if the aircraft had been descending, and that a bomb on board could not yet be ruled out, but a technical or human error was more likely.
An Egyptian air traffic control official said the pilot told him in their last exchange that he had radio trouble, but Civil Aviation Minister Mohamed Hossam Kamal said communications had been “normal”.
“There was nothing abnormal… and the pilot didn’t ask to change the plane’s route,” he said.
Kogalymavia released a statement offering condolences to the families of the victims and defending the pilot, Valery Nemov, who it said had more than 12,000 hours of flying experience, including 3,860 hours on an Airbus A321.
– ‘Keep hoping’ –
Russia has a dismal air safety record, and while larger carriers have started to upgrade their ageing fleets the crash will likely raise concerns about smaller airlines like Kogalymavia.
Metrojet said the aircraft underwent safety checks last year, and Russian aviation agency Rosaviatsia said there was “no reason to consider that the cause of the disaster was a technical problem or a crew error”.
Russia’s state-owned Rossiya 24 channel periodically interrupted coverage Sunday with photos of smiling crash victims apparently taken on their vacations and posted on social networks.
Flags flew at half-mast on the State Duma and other official buildings.
Locals in Saint Petersburg brought flowers and stuffed animals to a makeshift memorial in the arrivals area of the city’s Pulkovo airport.
The US, France, the UN and Venezuela all offered their condolences to relatives of the victims.
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 them French, died.
Millions of tourists, including many Russians, visit the resort, but an Islamist insurgency has raged in north Sinai since the army ousted president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.