Mystery and confusion still surrounded the final moments of a Russian jetliner on Monday, three days after it crashed in Egypt, with officials and experts disagreeing over whether a terror attack was the probable cause of the tragedy.
The Metrojet Airbus A321 crashed in the desert in Egypt’s Sinai region on Saturday morning killing all 224 people on board, after plummeting suddenly from high altitude 23 minutes after taking off from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for St. Petersburg with mostly Russian passengers.
Sinai Province, a local militant movement affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) group, has claimed responsibility for bringing down the plane, but both Egyptian and Russian officials have dismissed that claim as not credible.
Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi dismissed the claims as “propaganda” in comments to the BBC on Tuesday.
“When there is propaganda that it crashed because of ISIS (the IS group), this is one way to damage the stability and security of Egypt and the image of Egypt,” Sisi said.
“Believe me, the situation in Sinai – especially in this limited area – is under our full control,” he added.
James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, said Monday that while there is no direct evidence of any terrorist involvement yet, it could not be excluded that the plane was brought down by IS group extremists.
“It’s unlikely, but I wouldn’t rule it out,” he told reporters in Washington.
‘External impact only possibility’
But while investigators continue to try to establish the cause of the crash, the Kogalymavia airline, which operated the plane under the brand name Metrojet, has been adamant that it was due neither to technical failure nor crew error.
“The only possible explanation could be an external impact on the airplane,” Metrojet’s deputy director Alexander Smirnov told a news conference in Moscow. When pressed for more details, Smirnov said he was not at liberty to discuss them because the investigation was ongoing.
Asked if the plane could have been brought down by a terrorist attack, he said only that “anything was possible”.
But Russia’s top aviation official, Alexander Neradko, dismissed the company’s statement as premature and unfounded.
In televised comments from Egypt, Neradko said it would be possible to draw conclusions about the crash only after experts examined the plane’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders and studied the wreckage.
He said the large area where debris were scattered indicated the jet had broken up at high altitude, but he refrained from citing a reason for the crash pending the investigation.
Viktor Yung, another deputy director general of Metrojet, said the crew did not send a distress call and did not contact traffic controllers before the crash.
Egyptian officials have offered conflicting accounts on whether or not the plane issued any distress calls.
Experts say planes break up in flight usually due to one of three factors: a catastrophic weather event, a midair collision or an external threat, such as a bomb or a missile.
Bomb or sabotage?
The northern Sinai has been the scene of fighting between the Egyptian military and Islamic militants for years, and despite no definitive explanation for the cause of the crash, the US, Germany and Britain all have overflight warnings in place for the region.
The warnings advise airlines to avoid flying over the peninsula below 26,000 feet and to avoid the Sharm el-Sheik airport due to extremist violence and, notably, the use of anti-aircraft weapons.
Wassim Nasr, France 24’s specialist on jihadist movements, said that the possibility of a terrorist attack must be taken seriously, particularly as the IS group has not previously made false claims of responsibility.
“The first press release was published in Arabic by the Sinai Province’s media arm, before being translated into several languages and published through the usual channels of communication of the group,” he said. “The claim was then made again via a radio broadcast by the Islamic State group in Mosul [in Iraq]. The language was very precise, indicating that the plane had been ‘brought down’ and not shot down.”
If the crash was caused by a terror attack, a bomb on board is a more likely method, according to experts, as the IS group is not known to possess surface-to-air missile systems capable of striking passenger planes at cruising altitude.
“That’s a very serious piece of equipment, and I don’t think they have that sophistication,” British military analyst Paul Beaver said, adding that the Sinai desert is well-scrutinized by intelligence agencies, so a missile system would have been seen.
Robert Galan, a French aviation expert, said Metrojet’s claim of an “external impact” pointed to two possibilities: a bomb or sabotage.
“Either a bomb was placed during the stopover and programmed to explode after takeoff, or a mechanic sabotaged the plane,” he said. “These are the two most probable hypotheses.”
Sabotage would require familiarity with the electrical or fuel systems of the A321-200, but hiding a bomb would need less knowledge, he added.
Galan said an analysis of the plane’s data and voice recorders – the “black boxes” – will not confirm either a bomb or sabotage, as it records only the pilots’ communications and technical readings. But he said investigators could know within 48 hours whether a bomb downed the jet because the debris would show traces of explosives.
The plane’s operator has a spotty safety record and was rebranded recently in the wake of another deadly accident. The airline, registered as Kogalymavia, changed its trade name to Metrojet after one of its Tu-154 jetliners caught fire in 2011 while taxiing before takeoff, killing three people and injuring more than 40 others.
The Airbus A321-200 that crashed Saturday was built more than 18 years ago and changed several operators before entering Metrojet’s fleet in 2012.
One area investigators will look at closely is whether the tail separated from the rest of the plane in-flight as the result of damage caused by a previous incident in which the tail struck the runway during a landing, said aviation safety consultant John Cox. Such “tail strikes” can cause extensive damage to the aircraft’s skin in the region located by behind the rear lavatories and galley.
The incident occurred in Cairo in 2001. Metrojet said the jet underwent factory repairs and was safe to fly.
Cox said monthly maintenance checks typically cannot spot a return of damage from a tail strike because the cracks are inside the plane in an area that’s not normally accessible during visual inspections.
Instead, tail strike repairs are examined during heavy maintenance checks that typically take place about every four to five years, he said. Parts of the plane are disassembled so that inspectors can see inside. The plane’s skin is checked for cracks using a device that employs low voltage electricity or special dye.
“That’s a very complex repair and it requires very special expertise,” said Cox, a former airline pilot and accident investigator. Investigators will “look not only at whether the repair was done properly, but were the inspections of the repair were done on a regular basis during the normal heavy maintenance checks.”
If damage from a tail strike returned, it would be in form of small cracks that grow larger with the normal stresses of repeated pressurization and depressurisation.
In 2002, China Airlines Flight 611 disintegrated in midair while flying from Taiwan to Hong Kong, killing all 225 people aboard. Accident investigators cited metal fatigue caused by inadequate maintenance after an earlier tail strike as the probable cause of the accident.
The Irish Aviation Authority said the Metrojet plane was registered in Ireland and regulators there found its safety documentation in order earlier this year
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)