Update: Egypt asserts airports are safe after UK suspends flights

Civil Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal spoke out on Thursday against the UK’s decision to halt flights to Sharm el-Sheikh after a Russian plane crashed in Sinai in unknown circumstances on Saturday, killing all 224 people aboard. Kamal asserted that all Egyptian airports follow international security standards, and there is no evidence that a bomb brought down the plane.

After unconfirmed suspicion arose that the crash was caused by an explosive device on board the plane, on Wednesday evening the UK suspended its flights and advised nationals against all but essential air travel to Sharm. The decision was issued the same day President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi headed to London for talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Kamal explained the security measures deployed in Egyptian airports are regularly audited by international organizations, including teams from the United States and the UK. He added that 23 flights are set to head from Russia to Sharm el-Sheikh on Thursday, in addition to other international flights.

The British government made the decision without consulting Egyptian authorities, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid argued in a statement issued Thursday.

Security at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport has been intensified because this “is a positive and useful thing in general,” he said, not due to speculation regarding the results of ongoing investigations into the crash.

Several media sources quoted anonymous American officials on Wednesday saying a bomb on board the aircraft was the most probable cause of the crash. But according to Abu Zeid, US Secretary of State John Kerry assured Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in a phone call that these speculations don’t reflect the opinion of the US administration.

The decision to halt flights to Sharm was made “very reluctantly,” according to a British government statement issued Wednesday. The statement acknowledged the effect of this decision on Egypt’s economy.

“While the investigation is still ongoing, we cannot say categorically why the Russian jet crashed. But as more information has come to light, we have become concerned that the plane may well have been brought down by an explosive device,” the statement asserted.

The British government said it had deployed extra consular staff to assist airport officials and around 20,000 British travelers in the Red Sea resort. “For others, either in resorts at Sharm or planning a holiday to Sharm in the coming days, our advice is to contact your airline or tour operator,” the statement said.

Shortly before meeting with Sisi in London on Thursday, Cameron then clarified that “we don’t know for certain that it was a terrorist bomb. There’s still an investigation taking place in Egypt. We need to see the results of that investigation.”

Cameron explained that the decision to suspend flights was based on “intelligence and information we had that gave us the concern that it was more likely than not a terrorist bomb.”

“We want to start as soon as possible” to bring tourists home, he said, asserting that empty planes had left the UK for this purpose. He warned it could take some time, however.

The Irish Aviation Authority also instructed its airline operators not to fly to or from Sharm el-Sheikh or in Sinai Peninsula airspace from Wednesday until further notice.

German carrier Lufthansa followed suit, halting flights to Sinai on Thursday until further notice. Flights to Cairo would continue as normal, Reuters reported.

Irish and German experts are part of an investigation team looking into the tragedy, along with experts from Egypt, Russia and France.

The Islamic State’s Egypt affiliate, Province of Sinai, claimed responsibility for downing the aircraft immediately after the crash. The militant group published a video allegedly showing the plane on fire as it decended. But experts have dismissed the Sinai-based group’s claims, questioning its military capacity to target an aircraft flying at over 30,000 feet.

The group released a voice recording on Wednesday reasserting their claim. In the recording, a speaker for the group said the organization targeted Russia because of its role in fighting the Islamic State. He responded to widespread skepticism over the group’s claim, saying they are not obliged to reveal the mechanisms used to target the aircraft. He challenged investigators to find a plausible alternate explanation for the crash.

The Egyptian Civil Aviation Ministry offered no new information on the reasons for the crash in a statement released earlier on Wednesday. The ministry maintained that data from the flight recorder had been extracted and validated, and would be subjected to analysis.

“The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) is partially damaged and a lot of work is required in order to extract the data from it. Consequently, no further comment on the content of the CVR can be made,” the statement said. “Examination of parts on site is continuing.”