Five days after a Russian jetliner broke apart high above the Sinai, Russia and Egypt on Thursday dismissed Western suggestions that a terrorist bomb may have caused the crash that killed 224 people, saying the speculation was a rush to judgment.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who spoke to the presidents of both countries in the very public dispute, said he had grounded all British flights to and from the Sinai Peninsula because of "intelligence and information" indicating a bomb was the probable reason a Metrojet Airbus A321-200 plane had crashed Saturday in the desert.
- U.S, U.K. says Russian jet may have been downed by explosive, halts Sinai flights
- Metrojet Flight 9268: U.S. satellite imagery detected heat around jet before crash
- Metrojet Flight 9268: Russian plane crash in Egypt sparks confusion over cause
- Metrojet Flight 9268 crash sparks theories about mechanical failure, missiles and bombs
In a sign of U.S. concern, President Barack Obama said in a radio interview: "There's a possibility that there was a bomb on board. And we're taking that very seriously."
"We're going to spend a lot of time just making sure our own investigators and own intelligence community find out what's going on before we make any definitive pronouncements. But it's certainly possible that there was a bomb on board," Obama told KIRO/CBS News Radio in Seattle.
British and U.S. officials, guided primarily by intelligence intercepts and satellite imagery, have suggested gingerly it might have been the work of the extremist ISIS group and its affiliates in the Sinai.
"We don't know for certain that it was a terrorist bomb ... [but it's a] strong possibility," Cameron said.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi later stood beside him at a news conference following an awkward meeting. Cameron also spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin to explain that concern for the safety of British citizens had led the government to go public with its suspicions about a bomb.
Russia and Egypt insist the investigation into the crash must run its course before any conclusion is reached. The Metrojet plane crashed 23 minutes after taking off from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for St. Petersburg with mostly Russians aboard.
The dispute arose after the U.S. and British intelligence was disclosed Wednesday, just as el-Sissi was heading to London on a previously planned visit — his first as president.
Russia complained that intelligence gathered by London and Washington about its jetliner has not been made available.
If Britain had information about a bomb on the plane, it's "really shocking" that hasn't been shared with Russia, said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, speaking in Moscow.
British officials declined to say what intelligence was shared with other countries.
U.S. and British leaders have stopped short of a categorical assignment of blame in the crash, but Cameron said it is "more likely than not" that the cause was a bomb.
ISIS, which has not generally pursued "spectacular" attacks outside its base in Syria, has claimed responsibility for bringing down the plane, but Russian and Egyptian officials say the claim was not credible.
Russia is conducting an air war in Syria against ISIS militants who have promised retaliation.
Egypt's tourism industry at risk
Egypt stands to lose millions of dollars from its vital tourism industry. Its tourism minister, Hisham Zaazou, met with British officials in London to persuade them to reconsider the decision to suspend flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, the Egyptian state-run news agency MENA reported.
Caught in the middle are thousands of tourists stranded in Sharm el-Sheikh, unable to return home because flights have been suspended due to security concerns.
Britain sent a security team to the Sharm el-Sheikh airport to determine what changes are needed to make travel there safe, but Egyptian officials maintain there is nothing wrong with the facility, which each year welcomes thousands of tourists to the resort beside the crystal-clear Red Sea.
British Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin told Parliament that Egypt must put in tighter, long-term security measures before British flights will resume flying there on a regular basis. Short-term measures, including different luggage-handing arrangements, would allow the estimated 20,000 British citizens in the Sharm el-Sheikh area to fly home, he said.
El-Sissi said British officials had sent a security team to evaluate the airport 10 months ago and were satisfied with the results.
"They checked the security actions, they were happy with that," he told a Downing Street news conference through an interpreter.
Egypt condemned the British travel ban as an overreaction. Minister of Civil Aviation Hossam Kamal insisted the country's airports meet international security standards and said talk of a bomb was unsupported.
"The investigation team does not have yet any evidence or data confirming this hypothesis," he said.
Mere speculation, says Russia
The Kremlin said Putin told Cameron it was necessary to rely on data yielded by the official crash investigation.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said it was mere speculation to single out one possible explanation at this early point in the inquiry.
"One cannot rule out a single theory, but at this point there are no reasons to voice just one theory as reliable — only investigators can do that," Peskov said in Moscow.
Russia's top aviation official, Alexander Neradko, said investigators are pursuing several theories into the crash, including looking for traces of explosives on victims' bodies, their baggage and the plane debris, as well as studying other "aspects linked to a possible terrorist attack."
He said the investigation is likely to take several months.
Metrojet suspended all flights of Airbus A321 jets in its fleet after the crash. The company has ruled out a pilot error or a technical fault as a possible cause, drawing criticism from Russian officials for speaking with such certainty too soon.