A Russian airliner that crashed in Egypt on Saturday "broke up in the air", a Russian aviation official said on Sunday, adding that it was too early to talk about conclusions from the crash, Russian news agencies reported.
"The disintegration happened in the air and the fragments are strewn over a large area," said committee chief Viktor Sorochenko after inspecting the crash site on Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.
The Airbus A321 was flying from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to St Petersburg in Russia when it went down in a desolate mountainous area of central Sinai soon after daybreak, killing all 224 people on board.
A militant group affiliated with the Islamic State group in Egypt said in a statement on Saturday that it brought down the plane "in response to Russian airstrikes that killed hundreds of Muslims on Syrian land", but Russia's Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov told Interfax news agency the claim "can't be considered accurate".
The Russian statement followed the Islamic State group’s affiliate in Egypt claim that it had downed the plane.
"The soldiers of the caliphate succeeded in bringing down a Russian plane in Sinai," said the statement circulated on social media.
FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadi movements, Wassim Nasr, said on Twitter that the IS group didn’t specify how the plane was shot down, but added that the IS group has never claimed an attack they didn’t commit.
Islamic State militants have shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles (Manpads), which have a flight ceiling of roughly 10,000 feet. However, the plane was said to be travelling at a height of 31,000 feet, putting it beyond the range of Manpads, before it made a steep descent as it crashed.
Egypt claims ‘technical fault’
Egyptian security sources said there was no indication the Airbus had been shot down or blown up, suggesting instead that the crash could have been caused by a technical fault.
The Russian Embassy in Cairo said it had been told by Egyptian officials the pilot had been trying to make an emergency landing at Arish.
"I now see a tragic scene," an Egyptian security officer at the site told Reuters by telephone. "A lot of dead on the ground and many who died whilst strapped to their seats.
"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," the officer, who requested anonymity, said.
The black box was recovered from the tail of the plane, the prime minister's office said.
Sinai is the scene of an insurgency by militants close to the Islamic State group, who have killed hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and police and have also attacked Western targets in recent months.
Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, launched air raids against opposition groups in Syria including Islamic State on Sept. 30.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)