Confusion over the crash of Metrojet flight 9268 in Eygpt's Sinai Peninsula has deepened, with the Russian airline saying an external factor could have caused the tragedy, only to be upbraided by aviation officials who called such an assertion premature.
As representatives from at least five countries joined the investigation, new questions also emerged about the aircraft's repair history and the possibility that a terrorist act downed it on Oct 31.
The Airbus A321-200, bound for St Petersburg in Russia from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, plummeted after reaching cruising altitude. Experts said the fact that debris and bodies were strewn over such a wide area pointed to mid-air disintegration of the aircraft. All 224 people aboard, most of them Russian holiday makers, were killed.
Here's an overview of who says what:
Metrojet: "External impact" could have caused the crash; jet was in "excellent" condition
Senior airline officials were definitive in their statements that the plane and crew were faultless. "We absolutely exclude the technical failure of the plane, and we absolutely exclude pilot error or a human factor," said Mr Alexander A. Smirnov, a former pilot and the airline's deputy director. But he did not provide any documentation to show that the plane and its crew were in top condition.
Mr Smirnov said the crash could have been caused by "an external impact on the plane", although he did not endorse the theory of a terrorist attack either, saying that the investigation would have to determine the cause.
He also disclosed that the plane's air speed had slowed significantly and that it suddenly dropped 5,000 ft in altitude one minute before it crashed. Wild fluctuations in the plane's altitude and air speed in its final 20 seconds could indicate that the pilots were struggling to control the plane, he added. He also suggested that the sudden decompression of the plane as it broke apart likely incapacitated all aboard immediately.
The comments by the airline, formerly known as Kogalymavia, came after the wife of the co-pilot told the media that her husband had complained about the condition of the aircraft. The plane's tail was reportedly damaged during a landing in Cairo in 2001.
Metrojet is no stranger to incidents. In 2010, one of its Tupolev planes leased to an Iranian carrier made a hard landing and broke up and caught fire, injuring 46 passengers. In 2011, three people died after one of its Tupolevs caught fire on the runway in the Russian Far North on New Year's Day.
Russian government: Premature to say external factor could have caused crash
The Russian government contradicted Metrojet's assertions. "Such a statement is premature and is not based on any real facts," said Mr Alexander Neradko, head of the federal Air Transportation Agency. "Much more work will have to be done on a detailed study of the plane's constructive elements; flight recorders will have to be deciphered and analysed."
He also said Egypt was keeping tight control over data from the flight recorders and other instruments. "The Egyptian commission is giving no records and transcripts, be it of the flight recorders or on-ground recorders or radar data, to anyone," he said.
Source in investigating team: Plane 'not struck from outside, no distress call made'
The source said that the Russian plane was not struck from the outside and the pilot did not make a distress call before it disappeared from radar. The source, who based his comments on the preliminary examination of the black boxes recovered from the plane, declined to give more details.
Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) : We downed the plane.
Soon after the crash, the ISIS, who is fighting both the Egyptians in Sinai and the Russians in Syria, said it had destroyed the aircraft and it posted a blurry video clip that it claimed showed the plane being shot down by a missile.
The ISIS had earlier called for a jihad against Russia, after the latter began a military campaign in Syria to defend the rule of President Bashar Assad, Russia's only ally in the region, from the rebel forces assailing him, including the ISIS.
But both Russia and Egypt had dismissed the ISIS claim. Egypt's President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi told BBC that “when there is propaganda that it crashed because of ISIS, this is one way to damage the stability and security of Egypt and the image of Egypt". He added: “Believe me, the situation in Sinai – especially in this limited area – is under our full control.''
Director of US National Intelligence James Clapper said he knew of no "direct evidence" that terrorism was to blame for the crash. He also said it was "unlikely" that the ISIS group had the capacity to carry out such an attack, though he would not rule out the possibility.
Others, however, do not rule out the possibility. The claim "is credible", said Mr Mathieu Guidere, a terrorism expert at the University of Toulouse in France. "The Twitter account and the other sites that have published the claim have never published anything false. The statement also carries the same style as other statements from the group."
SOURCE: NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS