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White House Doesn't Rule Out Terrorism In Russian Plane Crash

  • RFE/RL

Mourners grieve at the coffin of Nina Lushchenko, a victim of the Russian MetroJet Airbus A321 crash in Egypt, during her funeral service at a church in Veliky Novgorod on November 5.

Mourners grieve at the coffin of Nina Lushchenko, a victim of the Russian MetroJet Airbus A321 crash in Egypt, during her funeral service at a church in Veliky Novgorod on November 5.

WASHINGTON -- The White House has said that it cannot rule out the possibility of “terrorist involvement” in a Russian airliner’s deadly crash over Egypt, after British Prime Minister David Cameron said it appeared “increasingly likely” the tragedy was caused by a “terrorist bomb.”

Russia expressed anger earlier in the day at suggestions by U.S. and British officials that an explosive device may have caused the Russian-operated Airbus 321-200 to crash on the Sinai Peninsula on October 31, and complained about a lack of intelligence-sharing by Britain.

But U.S. President Barack Obama said the possibility it was a terrorist attack had to be taken "very seriously."

"I think there is a possibility that there was a bomb on board and we are taking that very seriously," Obama told CBS affliate KIRO radio.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington that the United States had not made its own determination about what cause the plane to crash but is not excluding the potential role of terrorists in the tragedy.

“Based on what we know, and based in part at least on what’s been publicly reported in terms of claims of responsibility, we can’t rule anything out, including the possibility of terrorist involvement,” Earnest said, adding that he could not discuss U.S. intelligence on the matter.

Earnest said the administration “is reviewing a number of different steps that we can take to enhance security for commercial flights bound for the United States from certain foreign airports."

The suggestions prompted a sharp response from Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin telephoned British Prime Minister Cameron on November 5, telling him that it was vital to rely on information from the official investigation of the plane crash.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova was blunt in her comments to the media on November 5.

"Frankly speaking, it's shocking to realize that the British government has some information that could shed some light on what happened...[and] nobody has passed it to Russia," she said.

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters earlier on November 5 that Moscow "cannot rule out a single theory" about the crash, but insisted that singling one out is merely speculation.

"So far, we have heard nothing [like this] from the investigation," he said. "Any kind of assumptions like this are based on information that has not been checked or are speculation."

Photos of victims of the Sinai crash are shown next to flowers and candles at Dvortsovaya Square in St. Petersburg, where the doomed flight was headed.

Photos of victims of the Sinai crash are shown next to flowers and candles at Dvortsovaya Square in St. Petersburg, where the doomed flight was headed.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, by telephone on November 5.

"Both sides agreed that it was counterproductive to try to draw any conclusions without waiting for results of the investigation, which competent experts were conducting at the crash site," the Russian Foreign Ministry said of their conversation.

Most of the passengers aboard the Kogalymavia/Metrojet flight were Russians on their way home from vacation at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. All 224 aboard the aircraft were killed when it broke up in midair over the Sinai about 20 minutes after taking off.

On November 4, the Islamic State (IS) affiliate in Sinai said it planned the attack to coincide with the anniversary of the group's pledge of allegiance to IS and challenged skeptics to prove it was not responsible.

Security experts and investigators have said the plane is unlikely to have been struck from the outside and Sinai-based militants are not believed to possess the technology to shoot down a jet flying at an altitude of 9,100 meters. The focus then turned to the possibility of an onboard explosion.

Britain announced on October 31 that it was suspending flights to the Red Sea resort indefinitely.

Cameron’s office said on November 5, however, that Britain will resume flights from Sharm al-Sheikh on November 6 after agreeing on additional security measures with Cairo.

"Following further discussions with the airlines and the Egyptians, we have agreed on a package of additional security measures that is being put in place rapidly," Cameron’s office said in a statement after the prime minister met in London with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

"Consequently, the government has decided, in consultation with the airlines, that flights from Sharm to the U.K. will resume tomorrow,” the statement said.

​Aviation authorities in Ireland on November 4 also directed all Irish flights not to fly to or from Sharm el-Sheikh or over the Sinai Peninsula until further notice.

The Russian-operated plane was registered in Ireland and the Irish Aviation Authority is taking part in the official investigation into the crash.

Germany’s Lufthansa Group said on November 5 that it had canceled weekly flights to Sharm el-Sheikh by two of the airline’s subsidiaries following the tragedy.

A Lufthansa spokesman said the carrier’s budget arm, Eurowings, operated a weekly flight from Cologne/Bonn to the Egyptian resort, while another unit, Edelweiss Air, flies between Sharm el-Sheikh and Zurich. Both were suspended.

Kogalymavia will stop operating all Airbus A321 aircraft while it carries out additional checks, the Russian state transport agency Rostransnadzor said on November 5.

The airline has said technical faults or human errors couldn't have caused the crash.

Rescue teams have retrieved 140 bodies from the scene and more than 100 body parts.

They are combing a 40-square-kilometer area, searching for remains of the victims and wreckage.

Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Puchkov said the Russian rescuers should finish their work later on November 5.

In Veliky Novgorod, some 160 kilometers south of St. Petersburg, the first victim of the crash was laid to rest on November 5. Family and friends said their goodbyes to 60-year-old Nina Lushchenko.

With reporting by AP, Reuters and dpa
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