Suspicions that foul play or terrorism caused the passenger jet crash in Egypt were growing today as Russia’s Interfax news service revealed a transcript of the cockpit recordings.
The crew had a routine exchange with air traffic controllers four minutes before the aircraft vanished from radar screens, and they did not mention anything unusual or any other object near the aircraft.
“Sounds uncharacteristic of routine flight were recorded preceding the moment that the aircraft disappeared from radar screens.”
The crew did not send any distress signal, the source said.
“Judging by the recording, a situation on board developed suddenly and unexpectedly for the crew, and as a result the pilots did not manage to send a distress signal,” the source added.
Meanwhile, a US defence official told NBC that an American satellite picked up heat flashes around the time of the plane crash in the Sinai. They added that there was no missile trail – so puts doubt on the theory of the plane being downed by a surface-to-air missile.
But the heat flash could be the sign of a bomb or exploding fuel tank within the plane.
Earlier, suspicions that foul play or terrorism caused the passenger jet crash in Egypt are growing after the Russian airline’s owners said the plane could only have been brought down by “external factors”.
“We rule out a technical fault of the plane or a pilot error,” Alexander Smirnov, deputy general director of Metrojet, told a news conference in Moscow.
The claim, which appears to support the theory that the Airbus was destroyed by terrorists, was immediately rebuffed by Egyptian investigators as “speculation” and came as fresh allegations of mismanagement drew the company’s safety record into question.
Flight 9268 to St Petersburg crashed in Egypt’s Sinai peninsular shortly after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh on Saturday morning.
All 224 crew and passengers, many of them holidaymakers from St Petersburg, were killed in the worst single disaster in Russian aviation history.
In his first public comments on the disaster, Vladimir Putin said the crash was a “dreadful tragedy” and calling for a “fully objective” investigation.
“I would like to once again express my condolences to the families and relatives of the victims,” Mr Putin said at a meeting with Maksim Sokolov, the Russian transport minister and the head of the Russian commission investigating the causes of the crash. “In our hearts and souls we are with you.”
“Without any doubt everything should be done so that an objective picture of what happened is created, so that we know what happened,” he added.
Mr Putin did not address mounting speculation about the cause of the disaster, and the Kremlin said separately that it would be “improper” to comment before investigators have reported.
“No possibility can be excluded at this stage,” said Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman. “Articulating any kind of preliminary guess, any kind of opinion or statement without basis, would be wrong.”
Earlier in the day, the head of Metrojet, the company that operated the aircraft, moved to rule out any internal malfunction or pilot error. “The only possible could be a purely mechanical external impact,” Alexander Smirnov, the company’s deputy director told a news conference in Moscow.
When pressed for more details about the type of impact and what could have caused it, Mr Smirnov refused to discuss further details, citing the ongoing investigation.
Asked if the plane could have been brought down by a terror attack, he said only that “anything was possible.”
The Egyptian government immediately pushed back, saying that it would not stoop to commenting on “speculation.”
Abdel Hamid, a spokesman for the Civil Aviation ministry said that an “external factors” could mean many things “not only a bomb or a terrorist attack”.
There is potential for Cairo and Moscow to argue over the outcome of the investigation because of the potential impacts of the findings.
A successful and devastating terrorist attack on tourists could prove a major embarrassment and disastrous for the Egyptian travel industry, while for Russia mechanical or human failure would raise difficult questions about the state of the national aviation industry, while a finding of terrorism could rally the public behind the air war against Islamists in Syria.
Earlier in the day, the Russian newspaper Kommersant quoted anonymous aviation experts as saying the damage suffered by the Airbus A321 suggested it may have been destroyed by “explosive decompression of the fuselage.”
Experts said such a decompression could have been caused by stress-cracks in the fuselage, the external impact of flying objects – possibly including fragments of a malfunctioning engine – or an on-board explosion, possibly indicating a Lockerbie-style bomb attack.
An affiliate of the Isil terror group in the Sinai peninsular has claimed responsibility for bringing down the plane, but US officials have dismissed the group’s claim as not credible.
Jim Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, said there is “no direct evidence of terrorist involvement yet.”
Asked whether Isil could shoot down an aircraft, he said, “it’s unlikely but I wouldn’t rule it out.”
While insurgents in Sinai are believed to have shoulder-launched anti-aircraft rockets, or MANPADS, Isil is not known to possess any sophisticated ground-to-air missile system capable shooting down an aircraft at an airliner’s cruising altitude.
Regular travellers to the area said security at Sharm el-Sheik airport is generally tight, and that it would be extremely difficult for terrorists to smuggle an explosive device on board.
Meanwhile, it emerged that Metrojet owes its staff two months in unpaid wages and has suffered at least two serious accidents in the past five years.
Kogalymavia, the legal entity that owns the Metrojet brand name, owes its employees up to 70million rubles (about £70,000) in arrears, Alexander Snagovsky, the company’s general director, said.
The family of Sergei Trykhachyov, the co-pilot on 7K9268, said the last monthly wage he received was for July.
In 2010, one of Kogalymavia’s Tupolev planes leased to an Iranian carrier made a hard landing and broke up and caught fire, injuring 46 passengers.
In 2011, three people died after one of its Tupolevs caught fire on the runway in the Russian Far North on New Year’s Day.
Kogalymavia stopped flying Tupolevs later that year and in 2012, it rebranded itself as Metrojet.
Russian Emergencies Ministry aircraft carrying the bodies and fragments of 144 passengers landed in St Petersburg early on Monday morning.
A second flight carrying the bodies of remaining victims, as well as personal belongings recovered from the crash site, was expected to leave Egypt late last night.
The bodies have been moved to the city’s largest morgue, where they are undergoing examination and formal identification before being handed over to relatives for burial.
Flags remained at half mast across St Petersburg on Monday, after the city government extended the formal period of mourning until Tuesday.
Georgy Poltavchenko, the governor of St Petersburg, said his administration would pay £10,000 compensation to the families of each victim, regardless of where they lived, and raised the possibility of a ceremonial burial at a specially created memorial site.
Alexander Karavayev, whose partner Daria Schiller, 32, died in the crash, was one of several relatives to post portraits of the victims at the foot of the Alexander Column in Palace Square, one of St Petersburg’s most important landmarks, on Monday.
Speaking as the sun set on the square, Mr Karavayev said he was still in shock at losing his partner of five years.
“I was at the airport to meet her on Saturday morning. I hadn’t seen her since the 15th of October when I dropped her off there. Then the flight vanished from the arrivals board. And a little bit later we were told that something had happened to it,” he said.
“So I went outside, I just had no idea what to do. Then later the list of passengers was released. She’d been travelling with a friend. They were both on it,” he said.