CAIRO • Investigators of the Russian plane crash in Egypt that killed 224 people are "90 per cent sure" the noise heard in the final second of a cockpit recording was an explosion caused by a bomb, a member of the investigation team said yesterday.
"The indications and analysis so far of the sound on the black box indicate it was a bomb," said the Egyptian investigation team member, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. "We are 90 per cent sure it was a bomb."
His comments reflect a higher degree of certainty about the cause of the crash than the investigation committee has so far declared in public. Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants fighting Egyptian security forces in Sinai have said they brought the plane down.
Asked to explain the remaining 10 per cent margin of doubt, the investigator declined to elaborate.
Lead investigator Ayman al-Muqaddam announced last Saturday that the plane appeared to have broken up in mid-air while it was being flown on auto-pilot, and that a noise had been heard in the last second of the cockpit recording. But he said it was too soon to draw conclusions about why the plane crashed.
Mr Muqaddam had cited other possibilities for the crash, including a fuel explosion, metal fatigue in the plane, or lithium batteries overheating.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the incident could lead to changes in flight security. "If this turns out to be a device planted by an ISIS operative or by somebody inspired by ISIS, then clearly we will have to look again at the level of security we expect to see in airports in areas where ISIS is active," Mr Hammond told the BBC.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said his government is taking seriously the possibility of a terrorist attack. "We cannot rule out any theory," Mr Valls said yesterday on Europe 1 radio. The possibility of "an attack is taken very seriously".
The airport at Sharm el-Sheikh, from where the doomed flight took off, is surrounded by a wall topped with barbed wire. Armed sentries are stationed at its entrance, and passengers pass through two security screenings before reaching departure gates; before a recent flight, there were no fewer than eight uniformed guards standing around the checkpoint.
But potential inconsistencies in airport security in Egypt have never been hard to detect. Those gaps are now under the spotlight, as mounting evidence from the crash points to the possibility of a bombing, and several countries have restricted flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh, including Britain and Russia. Theories about how a bomb might have been hidden on the plane have focused on the possibility that an airport worker might have been involved.
Besides Egypt, the investigation involves experts from Russia and the Western European countries where the plane was designed, built and leased. In recent days, the Russian authorities have, unusually, asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation for assistance in the investigation, according to senior United States officials.
Officials from several European countries have raised concerns about Sharm el-Sheikh and other Egyptian airports over the years, diplomats and other officials said last week. They have repeatedly complained that X-ray and explosive-detection equipment used to scan baggage is out of date, poorly maintained or poorly operated by inadequately trained staff, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the airport assessments were not public.
But before the Russian-operated Airbus jetliner crashed in the Sinai Desert, concerns about the Egyptian airports were never considered serious enough to warrant suspending flights there.
REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES, BLOOMBERG