An Egyptian official said Saturday that a mysterious noise was heard on the cabin recorder a moment before a Russian passenger jet plunged out of the skies over the Sinai Peninsula a week ago.
But despite speculation that a bomb may have exploded aboard the commercial charter flight, Ayman Moqaddem, who heads a panel investigating the crash, told reporters that it was still too early in the investigation to determine a cause.
“Our initial observations after hearing the cabin recorder show a certain sound that occurred one second before the crash, but this also needs further examinations in specialized laboratories,” said Moqaddem, whose panel is investigating the fate of the Russian Metrojet that crashed after taking off from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik last Saturday, killing all 224 people aboard.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post described Moqaddem as Egypt’s Aviation Minister.
On Friday, an anonymous French source close to the probe said that the sound heard from the cabin recorder revealed a violent sudden explosion, a cause that was suggested by British intelligence sources on Wednesday.
The investigating panel includes experts from Egypt, Russia, France, Germany and Ireland, as well as personnel from the jet’s manufacturer, Airbus.
Islamic State-allied militants in the Sinai have claimed responsibility for “downing” the plane, without having revealed details. Shortly after the crash, Egyptian authorities said they ruled out the possibility of a terrorist attack.
Moqaddem said Saturday that the sound heard on the recovered recorder is not the only evidence at the investigative panel’s disposal, adding that all scenarios that could have led to the crash are still being studied.
The statement also came one day after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the suspension of all Russian airline flights to Egypt “until a proper security level is ensured.” Two days earlier, Britain started emergency measures to evacuate over 20,000 of its citizens from Sinai.
Flights taking British tourists back home continued on Saturday after only eight of 29 scheduled flights departed from Sharm el Sheik’s airport on Friday. An airport official said that eight regular flights per day would be taking British vacationers home over the next few days. Passengers were only being allowed to take handbags aboard; no checked-in luggage was being allowed aboard flights, at the British carriers’ request.
Some among the hundreds of British passengers stranded at the airport seemed relieved on Saturday knowing that a British inspection team had been sent to handle security checks for their coming flights.
“We were not rescheduled to an emergency flight, but now we feel a lot calmer that at least security measures are in safer hands,” he added.
A Russian tourist seemed content to remain in Sharm el Sheik until the end of her scheduled vacation. “Actually I do not think that this is the best time to board a plane from here. I feel safe and I’d very much like to enjoy the rest of my holiday. I also want to fly with all my luggage and avoid any chaos that can happen amid the ongoing panic at the airport,” said Svetlana Vasileva, 47, as she relaxed on the beach under the blazing sun.
Overall, streets in the resort seemed quiet at a time when they would ordinarily be packed with tourists at the start of the resort’s busy season. Egyptians in the tourism industry expressed concern that the crash could hurt business in the foreseeable future.
Saad said that he was out of work for four months in 2013 when a number of European countries advised their citizens against visiting Sharm el Sheikh amid the unrest that followed the ouster of Egypt’s former president, Mohamed Morsi.
“Back then, both Russia and the U.K. were not among countries barring their tourists from coming, yet many of us went out of work,” Saad said. “This time it is going to be a lot worse.”
Early forecasts show that Egyptian tourism could drop by 70% if British and Russian tourists cannot fly here, An estimated 3 million Russians and 1 Britons visit Egypt annually.
Tourism makes up to 11.3% of Egypt’s gross domestic protect and provides up to 14% of the country’s foreign currency revenue.
According to the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi’s office, Sisi and Putin have agreed that Russian inbound flights to Egypt should resume as soon as possible, but Moqaddem refused to set a specific time frame for completing the air crash probe, saying that “big incidents like these” take a long time to investigate.
Hassan is a special correspondent.