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U.K.: Explosive Device May Have Downed Russian Charter Jet Over Egypt

Britain raises the chance that an explosive took down the Russian charter over Egypt.

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The British government has delayed all flights to the United Kingdom from the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh after London said the Russian charter jet that crashed Saturday might have been felled by a bomb.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is set to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in London this week, said the flights would be postponed as security assessments are completed; these are expected to be done later Wednesday. Britain is the first government that has said it believes explosives could have played a role in the crash that killed all 224 people on board. Sisi is scheduled to arrive in the U.K. on Wednesday.

“While the investigation is still ongoing we cannot say categorically why the Russian jet crashed,” said the Downing Street statement. “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.”

Shortly after the British announcement, CNN reported that U.S. intelligence indicated that the plane crashed because of a bomb planted by the Islamic State or a group close to it. The Associated Press also reported early intelligence suggests a bomb took down the plane.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest stopped far short Wednesday of echoing the British assessment. “I don’t have any new information from here to share about the ongoing investigation,” he said. The CIA also would not comment on the British statement. The White House National Security Council referred Foreign Policy to the Earnest’s comments.

A U.S. Defense Department official, asked if Washington has reason to believe the crash was the result of a terrorist attack, cast doubt on the Downing Street statement. “We continue to have nothing to substantiate this story line despite any reports to the contrary,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Reuters, meanwhile, reported that investigators believe the explosion could also have been caused by fuel or engine trouble.

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the crash over Egypt’s volatile Sinai Peninsula. The chartered Kogalymavia plane, operating under the name Metrojet, was carrying mostly Russian tourists from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg. Over the last month, Russia has stepped up its military defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and targeted the Sunni Muslim rebels who seek to overthrow him — including Islamic State extremists that are based in Syria and Iraq.

Homemade bombs are a hallmark of the Islamic State. The group is widely believed to lack weapons sophisticated enough to shoot down a jet cruising at over 30,000 feet, like the Airbus A321 was.

On Tuesday, Sisi dismissed Islamic State claims of responsibility as “propaganda” meant to undermine “the stability and security of Egypt and the image of Egypt.” A day earlier, however, Metrojet Deputy Director Alexander Smirnov said the charter flight broke up over Sinai due to an “external impact.”

The New York Times reported Tuesday that U.S. military officials said satellites detected a large flash of light outside the plane just before it went down; a Pentagon official refused to confirm the report to FP. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper separately told a conference on Monday that a terrorist plot could not be ruled out.

What is clear is that Egypt’s tourism industry, which was contributing 11.3 percent of Egypt’s GDP and brought in 14.4 percent of its foreign currency revenue in 2014, is likely to take a hit. According to Interfax news agency, Irina Tyurina, press secretary of the Russian Tourism Industry Union, said the number of all trips booked the day the crash occurred dropped by 50 percent.

The prospect that a bomb downed the flight could complicate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculus in his military mission in Syria. Putin has called for an “objective picture” of the incident to determine “we know what happened and can react accordingly.”

FP chief national security correspondent Dan De Luce contributed to this report. 

Photo credit: Getty Images

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