Egypt balloon crash probe rules out criminal activity

LUXOR, Egypt (AFP) - An initial probe into a hot air balloon crash that killed up to 19 tourists in Egypt has ruled out any criminal action as a cause of the accident, state media said on Wednesday.

"Investigations so far by the general prosecution show no suspicion of criminal activity," the official Mena news agency reported, citing the preliminary findings of the investigation.

Four investigating teams were formed after Prime Minister Hisham Qandil ordered a probe into Tuesday's balloon crash in the ancient temple city of Luxor that killed tourists from Hong Kong, Japan, Britain, France and Hungary.

Luxor Governor Saad Ezzat and a delegation of Egyptian officials, as well as tourism industry professionals, visited the scene of the crash where they placed three bouquets of white flowers before observing a minute's silence.

Investigators have inspected the area in the dense sugar cane fields of Luxor, spoke to witnesses and residents and reviewed the operating company's paperwork and licences.

According to the investigating teams, the company that operates the balloon rides, Sky Cruise, had passed a routine inspection by the Civil Aviation Ministry on February 13-15.

"The minister of aviation checked the documents of the company operating the balloon. He found everything is okay. The technical requirements were okay," Governor Ezzat told reporters at the crash site.

Civil Aviation Minister Wael al-Maadawi said, meanwhile, that he had agreed to a request by British authorities to attend the probe.

"Things are very fresh at the moment. As the governor said, the investigations are ongoing, but if there is anything we could do, we will be happy to do so," British Consul John Hamilton told AFP from Luxor.

"Our main concern at this time is with the people who suffered such a horrific accident and I extend our deepest condolences to their families," he said.

The balloon had been floating over the west bank of Luxor, one of Egypt's most renowned archaeological sites and home to the famous Valley of the Kings and the grand Temple of Hatshepsut, when it exploded.

A video shot by a passenger on another flight appears to show smoke pouring from the balloon's basket for some time before the balloon itself blows up, leaving the basket full of tourists to freefall to earth.

The pilot and one tourist survived by jumping out of the basket at some point before it hit the ground, said an employee of Sky Cruise. Both were taken to hospital.

The families of the Hong Kong victims on Wednesday flew in to Cairo, where the bodies of the dead tourists have been transported to a forensic institute, airport sources said.

Nine tourists from Hong Kong were believed to be among the crash victims, their tour organiser said.