British investigators examining the deadly crash of a Russian passenger jet in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula last weekend believe that the plane was brought down by a bomb placed in the cargo hold, according to reports by Sky News, the BBC and The Daily Telegraph.
The BBC reported that while officials in London have not completely ruled out the possibility that Metrojet 9268 crashed due to a technical fault, they now view such a scenario as highly unlikely.
Sky News reported that British intelligence operatives uncovered chatter during a review of intercepted conversations following the Oct. 31 disaster that suggested a plot to bomb a passenger plane in the region. The Telegraph reported that the conversations involved Islamist militants known to U.S. and British intelligence.
The Russian government reacted angrily to initial reports of the British intercepts Thursday. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters that if Britain had information about a bomb on the plane, it was “really shocking” that such information had not been shared with Russia.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in response that the U.K. government had not distributed the intercepts widely, saying, “Some intelligence we can share, some we cannot. We have reached a conclusion. What we are sharing with our partners is our conclusion.”
Sky News reported that while British intelligence officials are willing to share their conclusions with Moscow, they are not willing to share the raw intelligence itself out of concern it would reveal too much about their capabilities.
The Telegraph also reported that investigators are focusing on the possibility that a baggage handler at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport smuggled the bomb onto the doomed Airbus A321-200, which killed all 224 people on board when it crashed 23 minutes after takeoff.
In a sign of how seriously British authorities were considering the cargo bomb theory, tourists due to return to the U.K. on specially ordered flights Friday were told to only bring carry-on luggage aboard their flights and that their checked bags would travel in cargo planes separately. On Friday, the Dutch airline KLM announced that it was implementing the same policy “based on national and international information and out of precaution.”
An estimated 20,000 British vacationers have been stranded in the Red Sea resort area since Wednesday, when British Prime Minister David Cameron ordered all flights to and from the region suspended.
The Daily Telegraph reported that employees of the Sharm el-Sheikh airport are not required to pass through security, unlike their Western counterparts. Though the airport is equipped with metal detectors and X-ray scanners, travelers to the area have previously complained about inattentive security screeners.
Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International, said a bomb could be placed on a plane in a variety of ways, including by someone with access or by those on catering teams or maintenance crews.
“The options are almost too many to consider,” he told the Associated Press in a telephone interview from Gambia.
Lending further credence to the bomb theory is images that appear to show holes in the remains of the plane’s fuselage punched from the inside out, the Telegraph reported. Other inward-facing parts of the plane appear to have been punctured with shrapnel.
Egypt and Russia have repeatedly dismissed suggestions by the U.S. and Britain that a terror attack brought down the flight. On Thursday, Cameron held a previously scheduled meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi that was followed by a news conference. The Egyptian leader said that British officials had sent a security team to evaluate the Sharm el-Sheikh airport 10 months ago and were satisfied with the results.
“They checked the security actions, they were happy with that,” he told reporters at 10 Downing Street through an interpreter. However, the Telegraph reported that the British team had urged the Egyptians to carry out more background checks on tarmac baggage handlers and add more scanners. It is unclear if the recommendations were carried out.
Cameron also spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin to explain that concern for the safety of British citizens had led Cameron’s government to go public with its suspicions about a bomb.The Kremlin said Putin told Cameron it was necessary to rely on data yielded by the official crash investigation.
Metrojet suspended all flights of Airbus A321 jets in its fleet after the crash. The company has ruled out a pilot error or a technical fault as a possible cause, drawing criticism from Russian officials for speaking with such certainty too soon.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry condemned the British travel ban. with spokesman Ahmed Abouzeidas calling it “premature and unwarranted” and noting the damage it would do to the country’s tourism industry.
Responding to that charge, Hammond said, “Of course this will have a huge negative impact for Egypt. But with respect to [Abouzeidas], he hasn’t seen all the information that we have.”