A Russian plane that crashed in Egypt broke up “in the air” strewing fragments across a wide area, an expert said Sunday, as investigators probed the disaster that killed all 224 people on board.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi urged patience to determine the cause of Saturday’s crash, after a branch of the so-called ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIL) takfiri group claimed it brought down the A-321 in Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula.
“The disintegration happened in the air and the fragments are strewn over a large area,” said Viktor Sorochenko, a senior official with Russia’s Interstate Aviation Committee, quoted by the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti from Cairo.
Sorochenko, who is heading an international panel of experts, said it was “too early to draw conclusions” about what caused the Sharm el-Sheikh to Saint Petersburg flight to go down.
Russian officials say they need to comb through an area of about 16 square kilometers (six square miles) in the Sinai Peninsula.
Investigators have recovered the plane’s “black box” flight recorder and the Egyptian government said Sunday its contents were being analyzed.
“In such cases, leave it to specialists to determine the cause of the plane crash because it is a subject of an extensive and complicated technical study,” Sisi said.
Officers involved in search efforts said rescue crews had recovered 168 bodies so far, including that of a girl found eight kilometers (five miles) from the main wreckage.
Cairo and Moscow have both downplayed the ISIL branch in Egypt that it brought down the aircraft flown by Kogalymavia airline, operating under the name Metrojet.
Egyptian Prime Minister Sharif Ismail said experts had confirmed the militants could not down a plane at the 30,000 feet (9,000 meters) altitude at which the Airbus 321 was flying, while Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said the claim “cannot be considered accurate”.
To reach a plane at that altitude “you would need hard-to-use missiles, so it seems unlikely,” said Jean-Paul Troadec, former director of France’s BEA aviation investigation agency.
Two air accident investigators from France — Airbus’s home country — were also to travel to Egypt along with six experts from the aerospace giant to help with the probe.
Germany’s Lufthansa, Emirates and Air France all said they would halt flights over Sinai until the reasons behind the crash were clarified.
The plane lost contact with air traffic control 23 minutes after take-off.
Wreckage and dead bodies were found scattered over an area of six to eight square kilometers (2.5 to three square miles), around 100 kilometers south of the town of El-Arish.