Exclusive to The Middle East Online
Edited by Nelly Tawil
EgyptAir says the wreckage of its missing plane with 66 people on board has not been found, despite earlier announcing debris had been located in the Mediterranean Sea.
Egyptian officials released the information quickly after the incident on Thursday; eager to avoid the criticisms they faced in the aftermath of an October terrorist attack that brought down a Russian jet over the Sinai Peninsula.
The country had faced an onslaught of international scorn after the incident for not being transparent enough and for its stubborn resistance to assertions by the U.S., the U.K. and Russia that it was a terrorist attack, after a local affiliate of Islamic State claimed responsibility.
In contrast, Egyptian officials attempted to maintain control of the rapidly unfolding events, issuing updates on the missing airliner and hastily convening a news conference. Egypt also led the way in saying that the crash had most likely been caused by terrorism.
“A terrorist attack is a higher possibility than a technical error, but its just speculation,” Aviation Minister Sherif Fathi said at a news conference in Cairo after reporters pressed him on possible causes.
EgyptAir Flight 804, an Airbus Group SE A320, disappeared from radar at around 2:40 a.m. local time on Thursday with 66 people aboard while flying at 37,000 feet. It had just entered Egyptian airspace and apparently plunged into the Mediterranean Sea.
There were early signs of confusion. The state-owned flagship carrier said early Thursday that an emergency beacon signal had been detected about two hours after the airliner disappeared from radar. But Egyptian military officials issued a swift denial.
The confusion was compounded when the Egyptian civil aviation minister said Greek authorities had on Thursday found “floating material” and life jackets likely to be from the plane.
“All I will say is that our embassy in Athens told us that it was contacted by Greek authorities, who signalled that they found white and blue debris corresponding to EgyptAir’s colours,” Egyptian ambassador to France Ehab Badawy reported.
Greek defence sources told Reuters they had found pieces of plastic and two life vests in the sea 370 km south of the island of Crete, however sources said the material they had found so far was not blue and white.
EgyptAir Flight 804, an Airbus A320 with 56 passengers and 10 crew-members, went down about halfway between the Greek island of Crete and Egypt’s coastline, or around 280 kilometers offshore, after takeoff from Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Egyptian and Russian officials have speculated that it may be the work of terrorists.
Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos said the plane spun all the way around and suddenly lost altitude just before vanishing from radar screens around 2.45am Cairo time on Thursday.
He said it made a 90-degree left turn, then a full 360-degree turn to the right, plummeting from 38,000 to 15,000 feet.
It disappeared at about 10,000 feet, he said. There were no reports of stormy weather at the time.
Egyptian and Greek authorities in ships and planes have searched the suspected crash area throughout the day for traces of the airliner or its victims, with more help on the way from the US, Britain and France.
Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathi cautioned that the disaster was still under investigation but said the possibility it was a terror attack “is higher than the possibility of having a technical failure.”