WADI Al-ZOLOMAT, Egypt (2nd UPDATE) – A Russian airliner that crashed in Egypt broke up "in the air", an investigator said Sunday, November 1, as the bodies of many of the 224 people killed on board were flown home.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi urged patience to determine the cause of Saturday's (October 31) crash, after the Islamic State jihadist group (ISIS) claimed it brought down the A-321 in Egypt's restive Sinai Peninsula.
"The disintegration happened in the air and the fragments are strewn over a large area," said Viktor Sorochenko, a senior official with Russia's Interstate Aviation Committee, quoted by the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti from Cairo.
Sorochenko, who is heading an international panel of experts, said it was "too early to draw conclusions" about what caused the flight from the Red Sea holiday resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to Saint Petersburg to crash.
Late on Sunday, a Russian plane carrying 162 bodies of those killed left Cairo for Saint Petersburg, airport officials said.
Russian officials said it was expected to land at around 0200 GMT.
Investigators have recovered the "black box" flight recorders of the Airbus which crashed killing all those on board, and the Egyptian government said its contents were being analyzed.
"In such cases, leave it to specialists to determine the cause of the plane crash because it is a subject of an extensive and complicated technical study," Sisi said.
The crash site in the Wadi al-Zolomat area of North Sinai was littered with blackened aircraft parts Sunday as the smell of burnt metal lingered, an Agence France-Presse correspondent said.
There were no bodies visible, but soldiers guarded dozen of bags and suitcases belonging to passengers from flight KGL 9268.
A tiny red jacket underlined the horror of the tragedy that also killed 17 children.
Officers involved in the search efforts said rescue crews had recovered 168 bodies so far, including one of a girl found 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the main wreckage.
Army helicopters hovered above the site as the search for bodies continued.
ISIS claim downplayed
Flags flew at half mast in Russia on Sunday and entertainment programs on television were cancelled on a national day of mourning for the victims, most of them Russians ranging in age from 10 months to 77 years.
Cairo said there were 214 Russian and 3 Ukranian passengers on board, and 7 crew members.
Thousands of Russians gathered in Saint Petersburg's Palace Square to observe a minute's silence and release doves and balloons to the darkening sky.
"It was impossible for me not to come," said Nika Kletskikh, 27, who lost a friend in the crash.
"It's so awful to think that she's no longer there."
Both Cairo and Moscow have downplayed the claim from Egypt's ISIS branch that it brought down the aircraft flown by the airline Kogalymavia, operating under the name Metrojet.
Prime Minister Sharif Ismail said experts had confirmed the militants could not down a plane flying at 30,000 feet (9,000 m), the aircraft's flight level, and Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said the claim "cannot be considered accurate".
A Russian team including Sokolov and the emergencies minister, Vladimir Puchkov, visited the scene in a remote part of the Sinai. Later on Sunday they left for Moscow.
Two air accident investigators from France – Airbus's home country – were also due in Egypt along with 6 experts from the aerospace giant.
Germany's Lufthansa, Emirates and Air France all said they would halt flights over Sinai until the reasons for the crash were known.
The plane lost contact with air traffic control 23 minutes after take-off early on Saturday.
Wreckage and dead bodies were found scattered over a large area south of the town of El-Arish. Many bodies were missing limbs, said an officer, who requested anonymity.
The ISIS affiliate waging an insurgency in the Sinai claimed it brought down the aircraft in revenge for Russian air strikes against the jihadist group in Syria.
But experts dismissed the idea.
To reach a plane at that altitude "you would need hard-to-use missiles, so it seems unlikely," said Jean-Paul Troadec, former director of France's BEA aviation investigation agency.
"This requires trained people and equipment that [ISIS] does not have, to my knowledge."
Experts said a surface-to-air missile could have struck the aircraft if it had been descending, and that a bomb on board could not yet be ruled out, but 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.
Russia has a dismal air safety record, and while larger carriers have begun upgrading aging fleets, the crash is likely to raise concerns about smaller airlines such as Kogalymavia.
On Sunday, the Russian transportation watchdog, Rostransnadzor, ordered Kogalymavia to perform a full check on its A-321s.
Kogalymavia confirmed the instructions but denied this amounted to a de facto grounding of its remaining fleet of 6 A-321 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, killing all 148 people on board. – Haitham El-Tabei, AFP / Rappler.com