Britain is putting in place plans to bring back thousands of its citizens from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt after Prime Minister David Cameron said it was “increasingly likely” that a “terrorist bomb” caused the Russian passenger jet to crash on Saturday, killing 224 people.
Emergency meetings were held in London on Wednesday evening and Thursday, while the Foreign Office changed its travel advice, advising against all but essential air travel to Sharm el-Sheikh. Nearly 20,000 Britons are reported to be at the popular resort.
The Egyptian government protested that Britain took the decision to bring back citizens and reduce the number of flights without consulting it. The development came as the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, arrived in London for talks.
Speaking after chairing a meeting of the government’s emergency committee, Cameron said: “The decisions that I’m taking are about putting the safety of British people first. What we need to put in place is more security at that airport so it is safe to fly people home.... I act on the intelligence. I act on the advice of experts.”
However, reports from Moscow said that the Kremlin dismissed claims over the cause of the air crash in Egypt as “speculation” after Britain and the US said a bomb may have downed the plane.
“Any sort of version of what happened and the reasons for what happened can only be put forward by the investigation and we have not heard any announcements from the investigation yet,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists. “Any other proposed explanations seem like unverified information or some sort of speculation.”
Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin told the House of Commons that the government was coming to the conclusion that a bomb on board the Russian plane caused the crash. It was a “very significant possibility”, he said.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond went on television to say that there were 19 flights scheduled for Britain on Thursday, but none would depart: “The airlines are telling us that by tomorrow they expect to be in a position to start flying those British visitors back to the UK”.
He added: “We’re spending today with the airlines, with the Egyptian authorities, putting in place short-term emergency measures that will allow us to screen everything going on to those planes, double-check those planes, so that we can be confident that they can fly back safely to the UK.”
Hammond said short-term security measures included additional levels of baggage screening and searching, and added that Britain would be working with the Egyptian authorities to look at a more sustainable plan.
Meanwhile, British airlines Monarch and easyJet said on Thursday they will fly from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula Friday to bring stranded British tourists back.
EasyJet says it will run nine flights from the Red Sea resort to London airports and one to Milan. Monarch will run two scheduled flights and three additional flights.
Egypt’s foreign ministry criticised Britain for its failure to consult Cairo before cancelling flights. A Foreign Affairs ministry spokesman said the British decision was taken unilaterally without consulting, in spite of high level contacts between the two sides just hours before the decision was announced.
He added that Egypt has responded positively to British security concerns by enhancing security measures at Sharm-El-Sheikh airport.
(With inputs from AP)