Rescuers have found no survivors at the crash site of a Russian plane carrying 217 passengers and 7 crew members aboard near Nekhel in the north of Sinai in Egypt Saturday, agencies report.
While Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the crash, Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov dismissed it.
Egyptian military and security officials and the Russian embassy in Egypt confirmed there were no survivors in the crash.
“Unfortunately, all the passengers of the Kogalymavia Flight 9268 are dead. We express our condolences to the families of the crash victims,” the embassy said.
The plane was carrying 214 Russian citizens and three Ukrainians, including 138 women, 62 men and 17 children.
Rescuers found many bodies strapped to the seats. Almost all bodies of the crash victims have been delivered to Cairo, Egypt’s capital.
According to the Russian Ministry of Emergencies, the first plane carrying the crash victims will be flown from Egypt to St. Petersburg Sunday.
Families of the diseased have already started gathering at the Pulkovo airport in St. Petersburg. A help center has been set up to assist them.
A militant group affiliated to Islamic State in Egypt called Wilayat Sinai claimed responsibility for the downing of the jet, the group said in a statement circulated by supporters on Twitter.
The claim of responsibility was also carried by the Aamaq website which acts as a semi official news agency for Islamic State.
“The fighters of the Islamic State were able to down a Russian plane over Sinai province that was carrying over 220 Russian crusaders. They were all killed, thanks be to God,” the statement circulated on Twitter said.
Egypt’s North Sinai is home to a two-year-old Islamist insurgency and militants affiliated to Wilayat Sinai have killed hundreds of soldiers and police.
The statement did not say how the aircraft was supposedly taken down but supporters were also sharing a video claiming to show it exploding and going down trailing smoke, which many viewers dismissed as fake.
However, Wilayat Sinai militants possess shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles called Manpads, the BBC reports, but security experts say they would not have been able to strike the Airbus A321 as it flew at 31,000ft.
Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov refuted the militants’ claim.
A source in Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency (Rosaviatsia) told RIA Novosti the Metrojet/Kogalymavia Flight 9268 took off from Sharm El-Sheikh at 3.31 GMT and went off radar after 23 minutes of flight.
The plane climbed to its designated altitude of over 10,000 meters before rapidly losing speed, dropping and then vanishing from radar. Some reports in the Egyptian media cited eyewitnesses as saying the plane was on fire as it fell.
The rapid drop the Airbus 321 reportedly experienced before crashing indicates pretty unusual circumstances and would suggest an emergency descent maneuver conducted by the crew, Captain Richard Woodward, former vice-president of the Australian and International Pilots’ Association (AIPA), told RT.
“If engines had failed, that would give you a dramatic loss of speed initially, but the crew would have lowered the nose and done what is called a glide descent,” he explained.
“My initial thought was that it might have been an emergency descent by the crew because they had a pressurization problem or dare I say perhaps a bomb on board.”
Before the crash, the Russian A321 captain is reported to have informed air-traffic controller of technical faults after take-off and asked for route change, a source in the Sharm el-Sheikh airport told RIA Novosti.
However, Russia’s Transport Ministry said the plane was cleared for flying and that no technical irregularities were spotted prior to the take-off. But the carrier Kolavia will be facing a thorough investigation, minister Sokolov told reporters.
“The cause of the crash will be determined following an international investigation,” Sokolov added.
Reuters said rescuers recovered the black box flight recorders from the crash site. Investigators could examine them which may shed light on the cause behind the crash.
Panel to probe crash
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to form a commission on Kolavia’s plane crash in Egypt, the Kremlin press service reported.
Putin expressed his deepest condolences to the families of the victims of the plane crash. He also ordered Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov to urgently send to Egypt rescue planes to assist at the crash site, the Kremlin press service said.
The Emergencies Ministry and Health Ministry has been told to provide assistance to families of the victims in the crash.
Russia will observe November 1 as a day of mourning for the crash victims.
US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his condolences over the crash.
“The initial reports represent tremendous tragedy, loss, and we extend our condolences to the families and all those concerned,” Kerry said from Kyrgyzstan.
Investigators take fuel samples
Russian authorities are currently searching the offices of the Kogalymavia airline which lost one of its passenger aircraft today in a crash in Egypt.
Investigators are conducting searches at the offices of Kogalymavia and at Domodedovo Airport which was the port of registration of the lost aircraft, said official representative of the Russian Investigative Committee Vladimir Markin.
Investigators in the Russian city of Samara are taking samples of fuel at the local airport where the ill-fated plane made its last refueling stop.