Air France, Lufthansa suspend flights over Sinai pending crash probe
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Air France, Lufthansa suspend flights over Sinai pending crash probe

2 European carriers take safety precautions after IS claims responsibility for downing Russian plane with loss of 224 lives

Egyptian soldiers stand guard as rescuers carry bodies of victims of a plane crash from a civil police helicopter to ambulances at Kabrit airport in Suez, 100 kilometers east of Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015. (AP/Amr Nabil)
Egyptian soldiers stand guard as rescuers carry bodies of victims of a plane crash from a civil police helicopter to ambulances at Kabrit airport in Suez, 100 kilometers east of Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015. (AP/Amr Nabil)

Two major European airlines suspended their flights over North Sinai on Saturday, after a Russian plane crashed in the peninsula shortly after takeoff from the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh back to St. Petersburg.

All 224 people on board were killed.

Both airlines said they would avoid the area for safety reasons, after an affiliate of the Islamic State terror group in Egypt claimed it was behind the crash, a claim that has yet to be verified. It offered no evidence at all and is not known to have the capability to do so.

Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said officials from Moscow and Cairo were in touch over the incident. The Egyptian officials, he said, had no information confirming the IS claim.

“Based on our contacts with the Egyptian side, the information that the airplane was shot down must not be considered reliable,” he said, according to a report by the Interfax news agency.

The group published statements in Arabic and French and a video purporting to show the attack.

“We took the decision to avoid the area because the situation and the reasons for the crash were not clear,” according to a Lufthansa spokeswoman quoted by Reuters. “We will continue to avoid the area until it is clear what caused the crash.”

“Air France confirms it has set up, as a precaution, measures to avoid flights over the zone of Sinai,” said an Air France spokeswoman.

Militants in northern Sinai have not to date shot down commercial airliners or fighter jets. There have been media reports that they have acquired Russian shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles. But these types of missiles can only be effective against low-flying aircraft or helicopters. The Russian airliner that crashed on Saturday was cruising at 31,000 feet (9,450 meters) when it lost contact with air traffic controllers, according to Egyptian aviation officials.

In January 2014, Sinai-based militants claimed to have shot down a military helicopter; Egyptian officials at the time acknowledged the helicopter had crashed, but gave no reason.

A Egyptian civil aviation ministry statement said the Russian plane’s wreckage was found in the Hassana area some 44 miles (70 kilometers) south of the city of el-Arish, in the general area in northern Sinai where Egyptian security forces have for years battled a burgeoning Islamic militant insurgency which is now led by the local affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group, Wilayat Sinaa.

It said the plane took off from Sharm el-Sheikh shortly before 6 a.m. for St. Petersburg in Russia and disappeared from radar screens 23 minutes after takeoff. Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail briefly toured the crash site before he went to the Red Sea city of Suez where some of the victims’ bodies were being taken before they are sent on to Cairo, the Cabinet statement said.

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