Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the suspension of all Russian airlines' flights to Egypt "until a proper security level is ensured" following the deadly crash six days ago of a commercial charter jet in the Sinai Peninsula, the Kremlin announced Friday.
Putin called a halt to Russian air traffic to and from Egyptian airports on the advice of his intelligence chief, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Though Russian and Egyptian crash investigators have said there are no conclusive indications of terrorism behind the disaster, government sources in London, Washington and Cairo have expressed mounting suspicions that a bomb destroyed the plane, killing all 224 people on board.
Federal Security Service chief Alexander Bortnikov had commented on Russian state television that he considered it "reasonable to suspend Russian flights to Egypt until we determine the real reasons behind what happened."
President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have also suggested that terrorism is emerging as the suspected cause.
The Russian government has been tasked with arranging the safe return of all Russian citizens marooned in Egypt, the Tass news agency reported. It cited the commercial director of Russia's biggest travel operator, Tez Tour, as estimating that 30,000 to 40,000 Russians were stranded in Egypt, a popular winter destination for Russian tourists.
Russian charter carrier Metrojet, which had taken off from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik on Saturday, exploded at 31,000 feet 23 minutes into the flight, showering debris from the Airbus A321 across more than seven square miles.
Russian authorities have sought to dampen speculation that the disaster was an act of terrorism in retaliation for Moscow's recent air assaults on Islamic State militants in Syria. The Kremlin dispatched air, ground and naval forces in late September, purportedly to join the multinational fight against the Islamist extremists. Russian airstrikes, though, have also targeted other Syrian rebel groups that have been fighting to oust Syria's Kremlin-allied president, Bashar Assad.
Peskov emphasized in his announcement of the flight suspensions that the decision didn't mean that investigators were giving the theory of terrorism more credence than other possible explanations for the crash.
"None of the versions can be considered dominating as there are no clear indications" from the investigation so far, Peskov said.
Parts of the shattered plane have been transported to Moscow for forensic evaluation, and the bodies of the more than 200 Russian victims were also being examined for evidence of explosives residue, Tass said. There has been no indication so far in those probes that a bomb was the cause, the agency noted.
Britain on Thursday ordered its national carriers to suspend flights to Sharm el Sheik, where some 20,000 British tourists were vacationing. Cameron said he considered it "more likely than not" that the Russian charter jet crashed because of a bomb explosion.
British carriers were allowed to fly into Sharm el Sheik without passengers on Friday to evacuate stranded nationals, but a prohibition against the travelers' checking luggage on the flights caused chaos and disruption at the Red Sea airport. Though 29 flights to carry Britons home had been scheduled, Egyptian aviation authorities canceled most of them because the airport lacked the space to store the thousands of suitcases British travelers were being compelled to leave behind for later transport on cargo planes.
"We do not have the capacity to store 120 tons of luggage at the airport," Aviation Minister Hossam Kamel told journalists covering the airport turmoil.
British carrier EasyJet, which had scheduled 10 evacuation flights out of Sharm el Sheik on Friday, said in a statement that it was working with the governments "at the highest level" to resolve the obstacles to getting British travelers home.
Egyptian authorities overseeing the crash investigation along with Russian experts and representatives of Airbus and the Irish registration agency that licensed the doomed Metrojet aircraft have issued no public reports from their initial examination of the plane's flight data and cockpit voice recorders.
Anonymous Western intelligence reports suggesting the aircraft was blown up have not been shared with Cairo, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said Friday.
But the Agence France Presse news agency reported that an anonymous official involved in the crash probe said the contents of the "black box" recorders pointed to an onboard explosion as the cause. An Egyptian government official also told the Los Angeles Times that a bomb was the more likely cause of the crash and that technical failure of the aircraft had largely been ruled out.
On the ground in Sharm el Sheik, Mohammed Abdel Fattah, who works as a handling agent for EasyJet, said two of the budget airline's flights to Britain have been checked in, the Associated Press reported. 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."
A British official 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 buses, ferrying British and Russian tourists, waited outside the airport, the line stretching up to half a mile as police inspected each vehicle.
Special correspondent Hassan reported from Cairo and Times staff writer Williams from Los Angeles. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.