Sharm el-Sheikh evacuation in chaos as Russia halts all flights to Egyptian resort
Efforts to repatriate thousands of British tourists from Sharm el-Sheikh descended into confusion yesterday as Egyptian authorities prevented most planned flights from taking off.
Only a handful of flights promised by British tour operators were allowed to land or take off, amid heightened security precautions that included sending luggage and passengers on separate aircraft.
Russia became the latest country to suspend flights to the Egyptian resort, reinforcing a view held by western intelligence agencies that the crash of a Russian passenger aircraft last Saturday, which killed all 224 people on board, was caused by an explosive device on board.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said the decision to halt flights “doesn’t mean that terror attack is now the main version” of what happened to Flight 9268, which was flying from Sharm el-Sheikh to St Petersburg.
An estimated 19,000 British tourists remained stranded in Sharm el-Sheikh and their repatriation was likely to take much longer than holiday companies or the British authorities had anticipated.
Thomas Cook said that only one of its four planned flights left the resort, three of Monarch’s five planned flights were cancelled and only two Thompson flights took off.
EasyJet cancelled eight flights, complaining that Egyptian authorities were frustrating its efforts to schedule extra flights, but Egypt’s minister for civil aviation, Hossam Kamal said the airline’s demands were impossible.
“The British airline wants to schedule 18 flights at the same time and wants to transport British passengers from Sharm el-Sheikh without their luggage, which we would have to transport later. This constitutes a huge burden on the airport because its capacity does not allow for that,” he said.
Russia’s decision to suspend flights to Sharm el-Sheikh represents a serious blow to Egypt, which is a popular destination for Russian tourists.
It could also cause political difficulties for Mr Putin, whose government has until now resisted the idea that last week’s air crash was linked to terrorism.
Any link to Islamist militants in Syria, where Russia has intervened militarily in support of President Bashar al-Assad, could help turn Russian public opinion against Mr Putin’s Syrian policy.
Flight 9268 had just left Sharm el-Sheikh last Saturday morning and was flying at an altitude of 9,450m, when at 4.13am GMT it suddenly started losing height. Flight crew did not send a mayday message and the aircraft appears to have broken up instantly.
A few hours later, Wilayat Sinai, an Egyptian terrorist group affiliated with the so- called Islamic State, or Isis, issued the first of two messages claiming responsibility for downing the aircraft.
Although the first message implied that the aircraft had been shot down, the second said the group would give details of the method employed at a later date.
It is unusual for Islamic State to claim responsibility for attacks it did not carry out, and within a few days, according to British and American media reports, western intelligence agencies had discovered communications between Islamist militants that suggested that an explosive device had been placed on board the aircraft.