Moscow’s ban on all flights to Egypt in the wake of a Russian plane crash will last for at least several months, the Kremlin chief of staff said Tuesday, dealing a severe blow to Egypt’s struggling tourism industry.
President Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, said on a visit to Finland that it would be impossible to radically revise Egypt’s security system in a short time, according to Russian news reports.
Putin suspended all flights to Egypt on Friday amid security concerns after the Oct. 31 crash of a Russian airliner that killed all 224 people onboard.
Other airliners from Britain and Western Europe are also bringing their nationals home, after several countries and airlines last week suspended new flights to Egypt amid suspicions that a terror attack could be the cause of the crash of the Airbus A321-200 operated by Metrojet.
U.S. and British officials have cited intelligence reports indicating that the plane, en route from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg, was brought down by a bomb on board.
While Russia and Egypt said the statements were premature pending the official crash probe, Moscow’s ban on flights signalled that it was taking the bomb theory seriously.
Ivanov said Egypt needs to revise its security regime not only in Sharm el-Sheikh, but also in airports in Cairo and the Red Sea resort Hurghada.
Asked how long the Russian flight ban could last, Ivanov said that “I think for several months, as a minimum.”
“It’s impossible to radically change the systems of security, protection and control in a week or even a month,” he added.
Security officials at Sharm el-Sheikh airport have told The Associated Press that it has long seen gaps in security, including a key baggage scanning device that often is not functioning and lax searches at an entry gate for food and fuel for the planes.
The head of Cairo’s international airport, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Genina said officials from Russia, Holland, Italy, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar were examining the scanning of passengers, cargo and baggage at the airport Tuesday. Security guards and caterers were also being inspected.
The Russian ban has badly struck Egypt’s vital tourist sector, which represents 11 per cent of its economy and almost 20 per cent of crucial foreign currency revenues. The industry had been making a gradual recovery after years of political upheaval since the 2011 popular uprising that deposed longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Egypt is one of the most popular destinations for Russians, especially in the winter when the sun and clear seas lure them away from grey, frigid weather.
Roughly three million Russian tourists came to Egypt in 2014, nearly a third of all visitors, with most heading to the resorts in the southern Sinai Peninsula or its opposite coast, far off from an insurgency being fought by Islamic militants against the army further north.
Eastern European visitors, also including people from former Soviet satellite states like Ukraine, made up a crucial 45 per cent of all tourist arrivals in June, according to Egyptian government statistics.
Within hours of the Metrojet crash, a faction of the Islamic State militant group claimed to have downed the plane in retaliation for Moscow’s airstrikes that began a month earlier against militants in Syria, a claim that was initially dismissed by both Russia and Egypt.
Ivanov said a terror attack is one of several possible explanations, but added that the probe into the crash will involve complex chemical and other tests and will likely drag into the next year. “We halted the flights to Egypt without knowing the definitive version, we did it preventively, out of caution,” Ivanov said.
He added that Russia’s air campaign in Syria will continue regardless of the probe. “The course of the operation against terrorists in Syria doesn’t depend on the investigation into the crash reason,” Ivanov said.
Commenting on media reports that Moscow was also mulling suspension of flights to other destinations in the Middle East, Ivanov said that Russian intelligence agencies have made no such advice, but added that Moscow was monitoring the general security situation and airport security in other countries in the region.
Since the Russian suspension of Egypt flights was announced on Friday, dozens of airliners have been bringing Russian tourists back home, carrying only cabin baggage, while Russian cargo planes were hauling back the rest of their luggage.
About 40,000 Russian tourists have been flown back since Friday, about half of their estimated number, according to a Russian government estimate.