SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AP) — A Russian aircraft carrying 224 people, including 17 children, crashed Saturday in a remote mountainous region in the Sinai Peninsula about 20 minutes after taking off from a Red Sea resort popular with Russian tourists, the Egyptian government said. There were no survivors.
According to Adel Mahgoub, chairman of the state company that runs Egypt's civilian airports, everyone on board was Russian except for three Ukrainian passengers. An Egyptian Cabinet statement said the 217 passengers were 138 women, 62 men and 17 children. There were seven crew members aboard the 18-year-old Airbus 321-200.
A senior aviation official said the pilot had radioed that the aircraft was experiencing technical problems shortly before air traffic controllers lost contact with the plane.
The Russian Embassy in Cairo said on its Twitter account that there were no survivors. Russian investigators were searching the Moscow offices of Metrojet, the company that owned the plane chartered by St. Petersburg-based Brisco tour agency.
Most of the bodies recovered so far from the crash site were burned, said Egyptian military and security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media. They said military rescue and search teams walked four kilometers (2.4 miles) on rugged terrain to reach the site.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi offered his condolences to Russian leader Vladimir Putin in a telephone conversation, according to a statement issued by the Egyptian president's office.
A civil aviation ministry statement said the plane's wreckage was found in the Hassana area some 70 kilometers (44 miles) south of the city of el-Arish, in the general area in northern Sinai where Egyptian security forces have for years battled a burgeoning Islamic militant insurgency which is now led by a local affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group.
It said the plane took off from Sharm el-Sheikh shortly before 6 a.m. for St. Petersburg in Russia and disappeared from radar screens 23 minutes after takeoff. Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail briefly toured the crash site before he went to the Red Sea city of Suez where some of the victims' bodies were being taken before they are sent on to Cairo, the Cabinet statement said.
Friends and relatives of the victims were gathering at a hotel near St. Petersburg's Pulkovo airport. Psychologists were meeting with them in a large conference room off the lobby and police kept journalists away. Some left the room occasionally, looking drawn with tear-stained faces.
Yulia Zaitseva said her friends, newlywed couple Elena Rodina and Alexqander Krotov, were on the flight. Both were 33. Zaitseva said Rodina, her friend for 20 years, "really wanted to go to Egypt, though I told her 'why the hell do you want to go to Egypt?'"
"She was a very good friend who was ready to give everything to other people. To lose such a friend is like having your hand cut off," Zaitseva said, adding that Rodina's parents feel "like their lives are over."
Russian airlines became infamous for poor safety in the early years following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which brought severe financial troubles and regulatory disorder. Although accidents have diminished in recent years, crashes persist, many of them blamed on human error.
Although details of what caused the crash were unclear and the pilot reported technical difficulties, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for bringing the plane down. They offered no evidence at all and are not known to have the capability to do so.
Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said officials from Moscow and Cairo were in touch over the incident. The Egyptian officials, he said, had no information confirming the IS claim. "Based on our contacts with the Egyptian side, the information that the airplane was shot down must not be considered reliable," he said, according to a report by the Interfax news agency.
Militants in northern Sinai have not to date shot down commercial airliners or fighter jets. There have been media reports that they have acquired Russian shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles. But these types of missiles can only be effective against low-flying aircraft or helicopters. The Russian airliner that crashed on Saturday was cruising at 31,000 feet when it lost contact with air traffic controllers, according to Egyptian aviation officials.
In January 2014, Sinai-based militants claimed to have shot down a military helicopter; Egyptian officials at the time acknowledged the helicopter had crashed, but gave no reason.
According to Russian news agencies, the airliner was a charter flight under contract with the St. Petersburg-based Brisco tour company. The plane was made in 1997 and has since 2012 been operated by Metrojet, a Moscow-based airline.
In a statement on its website, Metrojet said the A321 received required factory maintenance in 2014. It identified the pilot as Valery Nemov and said he had 12,000 hour of flying experience, including 3,860 in the Airbus 321.
Officers from Russia's top investigative body are conducting searches and questioning employees at Metrojet and Brisco. Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said investigators are also taking samples of fuel from the airport in the Russian city of Samara where the plane took on fuel Friday before heading to Sharm el-Sheikh.
Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal said an investigative team has arrived at the crash site to examine the debris and locate the flight's recorders, or the "black box."
Earlier in the day, an Egyptian official with the government's Aviation Incidents Committee told local media that the plane had briefly lost contact but was safely in Turkish airspace.
Later, the same official, Ayman al-Muqadem, said the plane had crashed and that the pilot, before losing contact, had radioed that the aircraft was experiencing technical problems and that he intended to try and land at the nearest airport. It was not immediately possible to independently confirm that technical problems caused the plane to crash.
Mahgoub said the aircraft had successfully undergone technical checks while at Sharm el-Sheikh's airport. A technical committee from the company was headed to Sharm el-Sheikh to collect security camera footage of the plane while it sat at the airport, including operations to supply it with fuel and passenger meals as well security checks, he said.
The aircraft had overnighted at Sharm el-Sheikh's airport, according to the Cabinet statement.
Roughly three million Russian tourists, or nearly a third of all visitors in 2014, come to Egypt every year, mostly to Red Sea resorts in Sinai or in mainland Egypt.
"It is too premature to detect the impact this will have on tourism. We need to know what happened first," Tourism Ministry spokeswoman Rasha Azazi told The Associated Press.
There was no sign of anything unusual at Sharm el-Sheikh's airport just hours after news of the disaster broke. Hundreds of holidaymakers, mostly from Europe and the Middle East, were arriving and departing. Flights in the afternoon were leaving at the rate of four to five per hour, with lines for international check-in spilling out the main gates.
"We were here for a week and had a great time, we only heard about the crash as we arrived at the airport," said Emily Bell, 21, from Portsmouth, England. "We enjoyed the beach and the nightlife."
Kennedy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Nour Youssef in Cairo, Irina Titova in St. Petersburg and James Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.