By Kim Hjelmgaard and Doug Stanglin/ USA Today
All 224 people aboard a Russian airliner were killed early Saturday when the Airbus A-321 crashed in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula shortly after takeoff from a popular Red Sea resort town, officials say.
The Metrojet flight, carrying 217 passengers and seven crew members, was en route from Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt to St. Petersburg when it dropped off radar screens 23 minutes into the flight.
“Unfortunately, all passengers of flight 7K9268 Sharm el-Sheikh-Petersburg were killed,” The Russian embassy in Cairo said, in Russian, on Twitter. “We express our condolences to the family and friends.”
Egyptian officials said the 7-person crew and 214 of the passengers and all of the crew were Russian and that three of the passengers were Ukrainian, RT.com reports. The victims included 17 children, aged 2 to 17, according to Russian authorities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued a statement expressing his condolences to the families of the victims and declared a day of mourning. A team of Russian investigators was sent immediately to Egypt, according to Russia’s Emergencies Ministry, the Russian state-run news agency RIA reports.
There was no other immediate word on the cause of the crash, although the Egyptian government ruled out the possibility that it could have been shot down.
The airline, also known as Kogalymavia, tells the Russian Interfax news agency that it does not believe human error was behind the crash. The airline also said it was arranging flights to Egypt for relatives of the victims.
An Egyptian aviation official says the pilot of the Airbus A-3221 had reported technical difficulties before losing contact with air traffic controllers. Ayman al-Muqadem, a member of the Aviation Incidents Committee, said the pilot had reported his intention to attempt to land at the nearest airport.
An unidentified source in Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency told RIA that the plane took off from Sharm El-Sheikh, a popular Red Sea resort, early Saturday and disappeared from air traffic controllers’ radar screens 23 minutes later after reaching an altitude of 31,000 feet.
Flight Radar 24, a flight tracking service, said the plane was descending at 6,000 feet per minute when it went off radar.
The plane reportedly broke into two pieces when it crashed into a remote, mountainous area of the Sinai, indicating the pilot may have tried to make a controlled landing.
“The plane split into two, a small part on the tail end that burned and a larger part that crashed into a rock. We have extracted at least 100 bodies and the rest are still inside,” an unidentified Egyptian official told the Reuters news agency.
“I now see a tragic scene. A lot of dead on the ground and many died while strapped to their seats,” the official said. Dozens of ambulances were scrambled to the crash site.
The Sinai is a sparsely populated and rugged desert region sandwiched between the southern Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea.
Sharm el-Sheikh is a resort city known for its sandy beaches. It is a popular destination for divers. But the mountainous area away from the coast harbors Islamist insurgent groups who have staged numerous attacks in the peninsula and in Cairo.
Charlie Winter, a London-based extremism researcher at Quilliam, said on Twitter that any militants operating in the region where the plane went down would not have had weapons capable of hitting the plane at its projected altitude.
Prime Minister Sherif Ismail confirmed the Airbus-321 jet crashed after earlier conflicting reports suggested the plane may have simply lost contact with air traffic controllers somewhere over Turkish airspace.
Alternative Airlines, an online travel agency, describes Metrojet, also known as Kogalymavia, as “an airline based in the oil producing town of Kogalym in the Urals region of Russia.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, who was on an official visit to the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, expressed his condolences to Putin and the Russian people, the Associated Press reports. “We don’t know any details about it, but obviously the initial reports represent tremendous tragedy, loss, and we extend our condolences to the families and all those concerned.”
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