Russian officials believe Sinai plane brought down by bomb - US sources

Debris from crashed Russian jet lies strewn across the sands of  the Sinai in Egypt.
Debris from crashed Russian jet lies strewn across the sands of the Sinai in Egypt. PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Russian communications intercepted by US intelligence agencies showed Russia believed the plane that crashed in Sinai, Egypt, on Oct 31 was brought down by a bomb, US sources familiar with the matter said on Monday.

The intercepts are among pieces of evidence leading US officials to suspect that a device planted on Metrojet Flight 9268 exploded shortly after the Airbus A321 took off from the resort city of Sharm al-Sheikh, the sources said.

All 224 passengers and crew were killed when the plane crashed in the desert on the way to St Petersburg, Russia.

Egypt and Russia have yet to formally announce the cause of the disaster. Both countries dismissed as premature US and British assessments last week that a bomb likely was responsible. Foreign airlines cancelled a wave of flights to Egypt's Red Sea resorts following the crash.

After initially signalling normal air traffic would proceed, Russia late last week cancelled holiday flights into Sharm al-Sheikh. Over the weekend, Russia mounted an airlift to repatriate thousands of Russian vacationers who had been stranded in Sinai after regular flights were cancelled.

Within days of the crash, US and British government sources were suggesting that intercepted communications chatter indicated that the plane had been brought down by a bomb.

ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) local affiliate, which calls itself the Sinai Province of the Islamic State, claimed responsibility for the crash, and indicated it was in retaliation for Russia's military intervention in the Syrian civil war.

The group has been fighting the Egyptian army in the Sinai, most of which is a closed military zone, in a conflict that human rights groups say has claimed thousands of civilian lives.

A U.S. government source said on Monday that neither Russia nor Egypt has accepted an offer from the FBI to assist them in investigating the crash.

The FBI has offered "forensic assistance" and other unspecified services to both Russia and Egypt, FBI spokesman Joshua Campbell said.

The possibility that ISIS operatives were able to infiltrate Sharm al-Sheikh Airport and plant a bomb aboard a commercial aircraft has heightened worries among US officials about the danger posed by the group's Sinai branch. "It has elevated concern," said a US official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the issue.

The US official said that a leading theory is that an airport worker may have planted the suspected bomb aboard the Russian plane.

US flag air carriers for years have avoided flying into or out of Sharm al-Sheikh airport because of long-standing worries about security at the facility, US officials said.

Because no US airlines fly there, the officials said, the US Transportation Security Administration has not recently evaluated security at the airport.