Russia mourns victims of plane crash in Egypt

The Russian national flag flies at half-mast on the roof of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia on Nov 1, 2015.
The Russian national flag flies at half-mast on the roof of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia on Nov 1, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (AFP) - Flags flew at half-mast in Russia on Sunday as the country mourned its worst air disaster after a jetliner full of Russian tourists crashed in Egypt, killing all 224 on board.

The flight had been bringing holidaymakers back to Saint Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city, when it disappeared off radar screens while over the Sinai peninsula.

“Can you imagine, people came (here) to pick up their children, grandchildren, only to find out that they no longer exist,” said Galina Grigoryeva, 34, one of many people who brought flowers to a makeshift memorial near the arrivals area at Saint Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport.

“When I found out about this, I just cried,” she told AFP, her five-year-old in tow with a cuddly toy for the memorial to honour the children who died, some as young as 10 months.

At nightfall, several thousand people gathered in a circle in St Petersburg’s Palace Square, in front of the Hermitage Museum, where they observed a minute’s silence and release doves and balloons to the darkening sky.

“It was impossible for me not to come,” said Nika Kletskikh, 27, who lost a friend in the crash.

“It’s so awful to think that she’s no longer there.”

Flags were at half-mast on the parliament building, in the Kremlin, and on other official buildings in honour of the victims, most of whom were from Saint Petersburg and its surrounding region.

Authorities set up a crisis centre at a hotel near the airport where relatives of the victims were invited to provide DNA samples and psychologists were on call.

Russia’s state-owned rolling news channel Rossiya 24 periodically interrupted coverage with moments of silence and flashed photos of smiling crash victims apparently taken on their holiday and posted on social networks.

Some people had been on their first foreign holiday, some had never flown before, and one couple was on their honeymoon, the channel said.

“Many of us could have been on this plane, and this tragedy cannot leave any of us indifferent,” Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church said as he led one of religious services held Sunday in the victims’ memory.

Many entertainment venues in Moscow cancelled their programmes, and companies planning Halloween events overnight had dropped the festivities.

Media organisations turned their social network icons monochrome as a mark of respect.

President Vladimir Putin, whose office announced a day of national mourning, was however absent from the screens, and some Russians criticised him for failing to speak to the nation about the tragedy.

‘GRIEF HAS NO NATIONALITY'

The plane also had four Ukrainians and one Belarussian national on board, according to Russian officials.

“It is tragic when people die. It is twice as painful when compatriots die,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin wrote on Twitter, listing the four Ukrainian names.

In the Ukrainian capital Kiev, people piled flowers outside Moscow’s embassy in a gesture of moral support for Russians despite political tensions between the countries over the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

“Grief has no nationality,” one Kiev native, 32-year-old Lyudmila, said at the scene.

“The most important thing is to stay a human being and not lose compassion.”