Russians mourn their worst air disaster

A woman leaving flowers for victims of the plane crash, outside the Russian Embassy in Minsk, Belarus, yesterday. In Russia, flags flew at half mast on the Parliament building, in the Kremlin and on other official buildings. Russian investigators exa
Russian investigators examining debris yesterday from the passenger jet that crashed in a mountainous area of the Sinai Peninsula last Saturday, killing all 224 on board, mostly Russian tourists.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
A woman leaving flowers for victims of the plane crash, outside the Russian Embassy in Minsk, Belarus, yesterday. In Russia, flags flew at half mast on the Parliament building, in the Kremlin and on other official buildings. Russian investigators exa
A woman leaving flowers for victims of the plane crash, outside the Russian Embassy in Minsk, Belarus, yesterday. In Russia, flags flew at half mast on the Parliament building, in the Kremlin and on other official buildings. PHOTO: REUTERS

Plane broke apart 'in the air'; Cairo and Moscow reject militant group's claim that it downed jet

MOSCOW • Russia mourned its biggest air disaster after a passenger jet full of Russian tourists crashed in Egypt's Sinai peninsula, killing all 224 people on board.

Flags flew 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 Russia's second- largest city of St Petersburg.

A senior official with Russia's Interstate Aviation Committee said yesterday that the plane broke apart "in the air" , but added that it was "too early to draw conclusions" about the reason for Saturday's crash, as the Egyptian authorities began examining the flight data recorder, or black box.

"The disintegration happened in the air and the fragments are strewn over a large area," committee chief Viktor Sorochenko said in Cairo, where he is on an international panel of experts from Russia, Egypt, France and Ireland.

Conflicting reports have emerged about whether the pilot, who was flying at an altitude of about 9,450m, indicated a technical problem. While Egypt's Civil Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal said the pilot had not radioed an SOS call, the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite channel reported he had sought permission to land at a nearby airport.

Russia's state-owned rolling news channel Rossiya 24 periodically interrupted coverage with moments of silence and flashed photos of the crash victims, apparently taken on their vacations and posted on social networks. Some people had been on their first holiday abroad and one couple were on their honeymoon, it said.

But both Cairo and Moscow have rejected the claim by a militant group affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that it downed the aircraft flown by the Kogalymavia airline, operating under the name Metrojet.

Egyptian Prime Minister Sharif Ismail said experts had confirmed the militants could not down a plane flying at that altitude, while Russia's Transport Minister said the claim "cannot be considered accurate".

In Egypt, rescue teams yesterday were looking for more victims, widening the search to 15km after finding bodies scattered for kilometres a day after the incident.

A military officer helping with the search said rescuers had found 163 bodies out of a total of 224 passengers and crew on board the Airbus 321, which crashed in a mountainous area of the Sinai peninsula after taking off from the Red Sea beach resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for St Petersburg.

Russia's state-owned rolling news channel Rossiya 24 periodically interrupted coverage with moments of silence and flashed photos of the crash victims, apparently taken on their vacations and posted on social networks. Some people had been on their first holiday abroad and one couple were on their honeymoon, it said.

Locals in St Petersburg placed flowers and toys at a makeshift memorial in the arrivals area of the city's Pulkovo airport. Several children, including a 10-month-old baby, died in the crash.

Russia has a dismal air safety record from recent decades. While larger carriers have started to upgrade their ageing fleets, the crash will likely raise concerns about smaller airlines like Kogalymavia.

Russian investigators searched the offices of Kogalymavia airline, and the country's transportation watchdog said it will continue checking it until Nov 30, but the charter carrier was still operating services yesterday.

Kogalymavia's representatives on Saturday evening said the pilot flying the Airbus 321 was very experienced, while the aviation authorities at the last fuel stop said there had not been any red flags.

"The plane did not undergo a technical check in Samara (in south- eastern Russia), but the crew went through a health check and were found fit to fly," said a regional transport prosecutor's office representative, Ms Maya Ivanova. "There was a probe of the plane's fuel and the quality of fuel at that time and it met all of the requirements," she said in televised remarks.

Four Ukrainians were also among the victims, said Ukraine Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.

Many entertainment venues in Moscow cancelled their programmes and media organisations turned their social network icons monochrome as a mark of respect.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose office announced a day of national mourning, was absent from the screens, and some Russians criticised him for not speaking to the nation about the tragedy.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2015, with the headline 'Russians mourn their worst air disaster'. Print Edition | Subscribe