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UK halts Sharm flights, says bomb may have downed Russian jet

Two flights were due to leave Sharm el-Sheikh for British airports on Wednesday before the UK suspended them
An airplane arrives at Sharm el-Sheikh airport near the congress hall in the Red Sea resort on 13 March 2015, as officials arrive for the Egypt Economic Development conference (AFP)

Britain said it was concerned that a Russian airliner which crashed in Sinai may have been downed by a bomb, and suspended flights from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Wednesday.

"While the investigation is still ongoing we cannot say categorically why the Russian jet crashed," Prime Minister David Cameron's office said in a statement.

"But as more information has come to light, we have become concerned that the plane may well have been brought down by an explosive device." 

The announcement came during a visit to Britain by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and four days after the Russian Airbus crashed in Sinai, killing all 224 people on board, shortly after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh.

Egypt's aviation ministry would not comment on the British move to suspend flights, referring all questions to the ministry of foreign affairs, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Also on Wednesday, a US official said that it was "highly possible" that a bomb exploded on board the Russian airliner that crashed in Egypt.

"A bomb is a highly possible scenario," the official told AFP. "It would be something that ISIL would want to do," he added, using an alternate acronym for the Islamic State (IS) group.

But the official cautioned: "I am not saying it's a definitive statement of what happened."

Ireland's aviation authority instructed airline operators not to fly to Sharm el-Sheikh or over the Sinai peninsula following the British announcement.

Prime Minister David Cameron has requested that part of Thursday's talks with President Sisi focus on Egyptian security measures at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport.

On Saturday, hours after the crash, Air France and Lufthansa announced they would stop flying over Egypt's Sinai peninsula as a precautionary measure while investigations into the crash continued.

Militants from the IS-affiliated Sinai Province group have said they were responsible for downing the plane but provided no details, prompting scepticism about the claim.

British aviation experts have been dispatched to Sharm el-Sheikh to assess the security situation and flights back to Britain from the resort are being held until the assessment is completed as expected later on Wednesday, the statement said.

'A precautionary step'

"We recognise that this information may cause concern for those in Sharm and indeed for those planning to travel to Sharm in the coming days," Downing Street said. 

"We have deployed extra consular staff to Sharm who will be on hand at the airport, working with the airlines, to assist British holidaymakers there."

"We would underline that this is a precautionary step and we are working closely with the airlines on this approach," the statement said.

Cameron also called an emergency cabinet meeting on the issue on Wednesday.

The statement from his Downing Street office did not mention whether any restrictions would be made on flights to Sharm, as compared to flights from the resort.

Airline EasyJet, which had two flights due to depart Sharm el-Sheikh on Wednesday, said that both were delayed and that Thursday's schedule was "under review".

"We are doing all possible to keep passengers informed and are providing hotel accommodation for all affected passengers," EasyJet said in a statement.

"EasyJet remains in contact with the UK government and will follow any advice it is provided with."

Around 900,000 Britons travel to Egypt every year and at least two flights had been due to leave Sharm el-Sheikh for British airports later on Wednesday. There were no more scheduled flights from Britain to the resort on Wednesday.

As many as 20,000 British holidaymakers are estimated to be currently in the Sharm el-Sheikh resort.

Russian plane crashes in South Sudan

Meanwhile, at least 40 people were killed on Wednesday when a Russian-built cargo plane crashed in South Sudan just after takeoff.

Only two people survived the crash, a member of the stewarding crew and a toddler who was on board, according to statements from the South Sudanese president’s office.

Armenia said in the hours after the crash that five of its citizens, who had been part of the plane’s crew, were killed in the disaster.

The local branch of the Red Cross Society said on Wednesday afternoon it had recovered 37 bodies, with some still trapped under the wreckage.

The plane, a Russian-made Antonov AN-12BK built in 1971, came down just 800 metres after leaving the runway of Juba International Airport in the South Sudanese capital.

There is no indication as yet as to what may have caused the disaster.

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