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Putin suspends Russian flights to Egypt after Sinai crash

Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to suspend all Russian flights to Egypt on Friday after a recommendation by his chief of intelligence for a halt until the cause of last week’s crash of a passenger jet in the Sinai Peninsula is determined, as an official said pieces of wreckage from the plane had been brought to Moscow to test for possible traces of explosives.

The suspension came after several days of statements by British and American officials that it was possible a bomb on board had brought down the Russia carrier Metrojet’s Airbus A321-200, which crashed 23 minutes after takeoff from the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all 224 people on board. Russian and Egyptian officials had bristled at the statements, saying it was too soon to tell the cause.

The suspension, covering all of Egypt, is even more sweeping than that imposed by Britain, which had halted flights to Sharm el-Sheikh only.

“I think it will be reasonable to suspend all Russian flights to Egypt until we determine the real reasons of what happened,” intelligence chief Alexander Bortnikov Bortnikov said in televised comments. “It concerns tourist flights most of all.”

Russia’s Emergency Situations Minister, Vladimir Puchkov, said wreckage from the plane have been brought to Moscow for tests. “These are necessary samples from all parts where traces of explosives could be. All of these samples have been delivered to Moscow, and we are studying them,” Mr. Puchkov said.

Britain’s efforts, meanwhile, to bring home hundreds of British tourists stranded at Sharm el-Sheikh airport by its suspension of flights were snarled by new security measures put in place for its planes, including a ban of checking in luggage.

Tempers ran high among the crowds of tourists in the airport departure lounge. When U.K. Ambassador John Casson appeared to reassure them, one irate British tourist who had waited at the airport since early morning hours, harangued him with angry shouts of “When are we going home?”

Britain had grounded all flights to and from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on Wednesday, saying there was a “significant possibility” the Russian airliner that crashed last Saturday, killing 224 people, was downed by a bomb. But London approved the resumption of flights starting Friday, though passengers were only allowed to take carry-on bags with them.

But Egypt prevented some flights from coming to pick up the tourists because of the pile-up of baggage. Egypt’s Civil Aviation Minister, Hossam Kamal, said there would be eight flights in all to the U.K. on Friday, instead of the 29 planned earlier. He said the British airlines are flying without passengers’ luggage, while Sharm el-Sheikh airport’s storage can hold no more than 120 tonnes of luggage left behind.

“This big volume will affect the smooth operation of the rest of the domestic and international flights,” said Mr. Kamal, adding that a cargo plane would carry bags separately for each flight.

British carrier EasyJet had been due to operate 10 flights from the Red Sea resort but said eight would not be able to fly because Egypt had suspended them. “We are working with the U.K. government at the highest level on a solution,” it said in a statement.

Two other carriers, Monarch and British Airways, said they still planned to operate flights back from Sinai on Friday.

The development is likely to hinder Britain’s attempts to smoothly bring back the estimated 20,000 U.K. nationals in Sharm el-Sheikh. Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said earlier Friday that “most of the people who were expecting to be home by tonight will be home by tonight”.

On the ground in Sharm el-Sheikh, employee Mohammed Abdel Fattah who works as a handling agent for EasyJet, said two of the budget airline’s flights to the U.K. have been checked in. He told the rest of EasyJet passengers to return to their hotels “until there are new updates”.

“Why all of a sudden is everything on hold,” asked one of the stranded British tourists, Carla Dublin. “We don’t know what’s going on.”

Mr. Casson, the ambassador, tried to reassure the tourists, saying that British authorities will “continue to work until we have everybody home”.

“There are challenging, difficult issues to work through, this is a busy airport and we need to make sure people leave in a way that is safe,” he said.

Early in the morning, the Egyptians carried out expanded security checks as dozens of busses, ferrying British and Russian tourists, waited outside the airport, the line stretching up to a kilometre as police inspected each vehicle.

Russia and Egypt have dismissed Western suggestions that a bomb may have caused the crash last Saturday, saying the speculation was a rush to judgment and insisting the investigation must run its course. The United States and British leaders have stopped short of a categorical assignment of blame in the crash, but Prime Minister David Cameron said on Thursday it was “more likely than not” that the cause was a bomb.

The crash prompted companies to ground flights from and to the Red Sea resort, stranding thousands of tourists this week. Britain later said additional security measures would be in place, including only allowing passengers to carry hand baggage, while checked luggage will be transported separately. The carry-on measure applies only to those departing from Sharm el-Sheikh, British officials said.

Inside the crowded airport, British tourists said they were just anxious to get home.

“We were in the first flights that were cancelled Wednesday night, we were already queuing to board,” said Amy Johnson, a 27-year-old British administrative assistant hoping to catch one of EasyJet flights out.

Standing in a crush of people waiting to pass through security, Terrance Mathurian, a British builder vacationing with his family, said hotel staff told them in the morning to head to the airport, following conflicting information.

The British Department for Transport said travellers should not leave for the Sharm el-Sheikh airport unless they have a confirmed flight and asked for “people’s patience at this difficult time”.

Meanwhile, Dutch carrier KLM announced it instructed its passengers leaving from the Egyptian capital of Cairo that they can only take hand luggage on the plane departing Friday. A statement on KLM’s website says the measure is “based on national and international information and out of precaution”.

KLM, which has no direct flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, did not elaborate on the unusual measure. Nothing has been revealed so far from the ongoing investigation into the plane crash.

Security officials at the Cairo airport told The Associated Press that flight KL554 left for Amsterdam on Friday morning with only 115 passengers out of the 247 who were booked on the flight. The rest refused to leave without taking their check-in bags, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said his government’s decision was linked to lax security. “We have the impression that there are insufficient security measures there,” he told reporters in The Hague and added that the advisory did not cover the whole of Egypt.

Air France said in a statement to the AP on Friday that it is reinforcing screening in Cairo and monitoring the situation with Egyptian authorities. France’s Foreign Ministry on Friday urged its citizens to avoid Sharm el-Sheikh and also the Sinai resort of Taba as well as surrounding areas, unless they have an “imperative reason” to go.

The Islamic State group, which has not generally pursued “spectacular” attacks outside its base in Syria, has claimed responsibility for bringing down the plane, but Russian and Egyptian officials say the claim was not credible. Russia is conducting an air war in Syria against Islamic State militants who have promised retaliation.

Earlier this week, two U.S. officials told the AP that images from U.S. satellites detected heat around the jet just before it went down. The infrared activity could mean several things, including a bomb blast or an engine exploding because of a mechanical breakdown.

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