SHARM EL SHEIKH (Egypt) • Russia has ordered a halt to flights to Egypt as concerns grew that a bomb downed a Russian plane after take-off from its Sharm el-Sheikh resort, while British carriers started to evacuate holidaymakers.
Turkish Airlines has also cancelled flights to Sharm el-Sheikh last night and tonight over security concerns, after dispatching a security team to the Sharm al-Sheikh airport to assess security procedures.
President Vladimir Putin "ordered the government to work out mechanisms" to halt flights and to repatriate citizens, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies yesterday.
Around 45,000 Russians are currently on holiday in Egypt, Mr Oleg Safonov, head of Russia's state tourism agency, Rostourism, said yesterday, Tass news agency reported.
With international concerns mounting, European airlines readied to bring home thousands of tourists from Sharm el-Sheikh, a magnet for hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. A first flight finally took off for London's Gatwick airport after a long delay yesterday, followed shortly by another plane headed for Britain.
But there were angry scenes at the airport as thousands of anxious Britons, who had also hoped to fly home, were sent back to their hotels after Egypt blocked several other repatriation flights.
Egypt's aviation minister Hossam Kamal said only eight out of 29 flights would take off because the airport could not cope with all the luggage left behind.
In a sign of mounting fears about the security of baggage handling in Egypt, Dutch carrier KLM announced that it had banned check-in luggage on an early flight from Cairo, mirroring moves taken by several European airlines on Sharm flights.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group has claimed responsibility for the disaster, in which the St Petersburg-bound jet last weekend crashed minutes after taking off, killing all 224, mainly Russian tourists, on board.
Cairo has sought to downplay the suggestion of an attack.
But US President Barack Obama told a radio station: "I think there is a possibility that there was a bomb on board and we are taking that very seriously."
But he emphasised it was too early to say for sure.
At an emergency meeting in Moscow, the head of Russia's FSB security service, Mr Alexander Bortnikov, said it would be prudent to halt flights for now.
There is no global or European blanket ban but France and Belgium have warned citizens against travelling to Sharm el-Sheikh.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS