U.S. intelligence: Bomb likely brought down Russian plane

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Saying it would tell the world how did so in its own time, Islamic State's Egyptian affiliate

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — The latest U.S. intelligence suggests that the crash of Metrojet Flight 9268 was most likely caused by a bomb on the plane planted by ISIS or an ISIS affiliate, according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter. The official stressed that there has not been a formal conclusion reached by the U.S. intelligence community. “There is a definite feeling it was an explosive device planted in luggage or somewhere on the plane,” the official told CNN’s Barbara Starr.

Ireland is suspending all flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, until further notice, according to a statement from the Irish Aviation Authority. The move comes in the wake of concerns an explosive device may have caused Saturday’s crash of a Russian airliner that flew out of the resort city on the Sinai Peninsula. The United Kingdom took similar measures earlier Wednesday.

Metrojet Flight 9268 crashed Saturday after breaking apart in mid-air, killing all 224 people on board.

“While the investigation is still ongoing we cannot say categorically why the Russian jet crashed,” the Prime Minister’s office said. “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 delay of “flights due to leave Sharm for the UK this evening” is precautionary, to allow UK aviation experts to assess security arrangements at Sharm el-Sheikh’s airport, Cameron’s office said in its statement. Those experts have already departed the UK and are on their way to Egypt.

Earlier Wednesday, there was more speculation about what might have brought down Flight 9268.

The plane left the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and was heading to St. Petersburg early Saturday when it dropped off radar about 23 minutes into the flight, Egyptian officials said.

Was it a midair explosion? Could repair work from a previous accident be a factor?

Sinai has been a battleground between ISIS-affiliated militants and Egyptian security forces in recent years. Hundreds have died in the fighting.

The militants appeared to claim responsibility for bringing down the Russian passenger jet in a statement posted online Saturday, but officials in Egypt and Russia have disputed that claim, saying there’s no evidence to support it.

Egypt’s Interior Ministry said it wasn’t stepping up security in Sharm el-Sheikh or at the resort city’s airport “because there is no indication (the plane crash) was a terrorist operation.”

But the U.S. Embassy in Cairo has sent a security message to its employees, instructing them not to travel anywhere in Sinai pending the outcome of the crash investigation.

Flight recorders

No data has been recovered so far from the flight recorders, according to an official familiar with the investigation underway by the French Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (BEA).

Responding to a CNN question about the British government’s concern that an explosive device brought down the plane, the French official said “the teams are still working on the CVR and FDR, this information from the British government could not have come from a technical investigation. Nothing so far came out of the flight recorders.”

The CVR, the cockpit voice recorder, and the FDR, the flight data recorder, are sometimes colloquially known as “black boxes.”

The BEA is the French entity responsible for investigating aviation incidents. It’s involved in the investigation of the Metrojet crash because the plane was a French-built Airbus.

Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry said earlier Wednesday that the cockpit voice recorder had been damaged and that the contents of the flight data recorder has been “extracted and validated.”

Russia’s privately owned Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed source in Cairo as saying the plane’s cockpit voice recorder had captured uncharacteristic sounds the moment before the flight disappeared.

It cited the source as saying that an “unexpected’ and “nonstandard (emergency)” occurred “instantly,” which was why the pilots failed to send an emergency or alarm signal.

Repair from previous flight

The plane’s tail was found about five kilometers (three miles) from the rest of the aircraft wreckage, the Russian state broadcaster Russia 24 reported.

The distance from the tail to the rest of the debris could be important — especially because the tail was previously damaged, CNN aviation analyst Mary Schiavo said.

“To me, it says (the tail) exited the plane before (an) explosive event and before the fire engulfed the plane,” she said.

On a previous flight, the same plane’s tail struck a runway while landing in Cairo in 2001 and required repair, according to the Aviation Safety Network, which tracks aircraft incidents. At the time, the aircraft was registered to the Lebanese carrier Middle East Airlines, registration records show.

Schiavo, a former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said something could have gone wrong with the repair work after the tail strike. She said she once worked on a crash where a tail strike that had not been repaired well brought down a plane almost two decades later.

“A bad repair is like a ticking time bomb, because once it’s on the plane, it stays with the plane forever,” she said.

Airline company spokesman Andrei Averyanov said the plane had been damaged in 2001 but had most recently been thoroughly checked for cracks in 2013. Not enough time had passed for major cracks to develop to a critical size since then, he said.

The Airbus A321-200 was built in 1997. It had clocked around 56,000 flight hours over the course of nearly 21,000 flights, the plane maker said.

Officials have said all its inspections were in order.

The possibility of an explosion

Forensic experts trying to identify victims have divided the types of trauma into two categories: injuries from the fall, and injuries that align with an explosion — such as metal pieces in bodies, the St. Petersburg news outlet Fontanka reported.

But the experts said it’s too early to say what actually caused the plane to crash.

Russia’s state-run Tass news agency reported that Russian and Egyptian experts had not found any blast-related trauma during their preliminary examination of the bodies, citing a Russian source within the investigation.

Most of the bodies retrieved at the crash site are intact, a medical source in Sinai told CNN.

That doesn’t eliminate the possibility that an explosion occurred, said CNN safety analyst David Soucie, a former accident investigator for the Federal Aviation Administration.

“A blast would not have to be very large … to rupture the hull of that aircraft,” he said.

On Wednesday, the Russian Emergency Situation Ministry said the search zone in Egypt had expanded to 40 square kilometers. Previously, Egyptian authorities said the search zone spanned 20 square kilometers.

Data and satellite information

Air traffic controllers apparently didn’t receive any distress calls.

The website Flightradar24, which tracks aircraft around the world, said it had received data from the Russian plane suggesting sharp changes in altitude and a dramatic decrease in ground speed before the signal was lost.

A U.S. military satellite detected a midair heat flash from the Russian airliner before it crashed Saturday, a U.S. official told CNN.

Intelligence analysis has ruled out that the Russian commercial airplane was struck by a missile, but the new information suggests that there was a catastrophic in-flight event — including possibly a bomb, though experts are considering other explanations, according to U.S. officials.

Analysts say heat flashes could be tied to a range of possibilities, including a bomb blast, a malfunctioning engine exploding or a structural problem causing a fire on the plane.

The victims

The disaster claimed the lives of 209 Russians, four Ukrainians, one Belarusian and three others whose citizenship is not clear.

At least 25 children were on the plane. Russian media said the tragedy also created a large number of orphans because many parents left their children behind to go on vacation to Sharm el-Sheikh.

So far, 33 of the 224 bodies have been identified, Tass reported Wednesday. The first body has been released for a funeral.

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