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Terror likely in EgyptAir crash

| Thursday, May 19, 2016, 10:42 a.m.
EgyptAir planes are seen on the tarmac at Cairo international airport on May 19, 2016, after an EgyptAir flight from Paris to Cairo crashed into the Mediterranean on with 66 people on board, prompting an investigation into whether it was mechanical failure or a bomb.
AFP/Getty Images
EgyptAir planes are seen on the tarmac at Cairo international airport on May 19, 2016, after an EgyptAir flight from Paris to Cairo crashed into the Mediterranean on with 66 people on board, prompting an investigation into whether it was mechanical failure or a bomb.
Police officers patrol at Charles de Gaulle airport, outside of Paris, Thursday, May 19, 2016.
Police officers patrol at Charles de Gaulle airport, outside of Paris, Thursday, May 19, 2016.
A relative of the victims of the EgyptAir flight 804 wipes her tears as she is comforted by unidentified people at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside of Paris, Thursday, May 19, 2016.
A relative of the victims of the EgyptAir flight 804 wipes her tears as she is comforted by unidentified people at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside of Paris, Thursday, May 19, 2016.
Relatives of passengers on a vanished EgyptAir flight grieve as they leave the in-flight service building where they were held at Cairo International Airport, Egypt, Thursday, May 19, 2016.
Relatives of passengers on a vanished EgyptAir flight grieve as they leave the in-flight service building where they were held at Cairo International Airport, Egypt, Thursday, May 19, 2016.
Egypt's Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathy speaks, after an EgyptAir plane vanished from radar en route from Paris to Cairo, during a news conference at headquarters of ministry in Cairo, Egypt May 19, 2016.
REUTERS
Egypt's Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathy speaks, after an EgyptAir plane vanished from radar en route from Paris to Cairo, during a news conference at headquarters of ministry in Cairo, Egypt May 19, 2016.
A relative of a passenger on an EgyptAir flight that crashed early Thursday puts her hand on the window from inside a bus at Cairo International Airport, Egypt, Thursday, May 19, 2016. The EgyptAir jetliner bound from Paris to Cairo with 66 people aboard crashed in the Mediterranean Sea early Thursday after swerving wildly in flight, authorities said, and Egypt said it may have been a terrorist attack. (AP Photo/Ahmed Abd el Fattah)
A relative of a passenger on an EgyptAir flight that crashed early Thursday puts her hand on the window from inside a bus at Cairo International Airport, Egypt, Thursday, May 19, 2016. The EgyptAir jetliner bound from Paris to Cairo with 66 people aboard crashed in the Mediterranean Sea early Thursday after swerving wildly in flight, authorities said, and Egypt said it may have been a terrorist attack. (AP Photo/Ahmed Abd el Fattah)

CAIRO — Egyptian authorities say terrorism likely caused the apparent crash of EgyptAir Flight MS804 early Thursday over the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Late in the day, the media arm of the Islamic State terror group said its agents placed a bomb aboard the flight, but the claim was not immediately confirmed by Egyptian or international authorities.

The ISIS report said its supporters celebrated news of the crash at their headquarters in Raqqa, Syria.

The jetliner with 66 passengers and crew disappeared from radar while flying from Paris to Cairo about 3:30 a.m. local time.

Onboard were 30 Egyptian and 15 French passengers, two Iraqis, and one each from Algeria, Belgium, Canada, Chad, Great Britain, Kuwait, Portugal, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, as well as 10 Egyptian crew members. Two passengers were described as infants.

At midday, the airline said wreckage matching the jetliner's paint scheme was found floating near the suspected crash site, but those reports were later questioned by Greek officials.

Greek authorities initially said that, shortly after a final radio contact with flight controllers, the plane appeared to plummet from its cruising altitude of 38,000 feet to 15,000 feet and made what one official described as two “swerves” — 90 degrees to the left, then 360 degrees to the right — before vanishing from controllers' radar screens.

That description led experts to speculate that a bomb or a catastrophic systems failure destroyed the jetliner's controls — if not its wings, tail or cockpit — and sent the plane into a doomed spiral into the sea. Most dismissed suggestions of a struggle for control of the Airbus A320.

Greek and Egyptian flight controllers said the pilot did not issue a distress call — adding to speculation, from Cairo to Paris to Washington, about a bomb onboard.

The jetliner was 10 miles inside airspace monitored by Egyptian air controllers, authorities said.

Egyptian aviation minister Sharif Fathy said at an afternoon news conference that he considered the plane “missing until the debris is found,” while acknowledging that it may have crashed.

Fathy said the “possibility of a terror attack is higher than that of a technical error.”

EgyptAir spokesmen posted repeated updates on Twitter and other social media sites but asked media to use caution in reporting on the plane's disappearance.

French President Francois Hollande said the plane “had crashed and disappeared.” No theory for the cause of its disappearance could be ruled out, he added.

The flight originated from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. More than 80 of that airport's workers have been fired, officially detained or lost security clearances in recent months because of suspected connections with Islamist extremist groups.

French officials ordered security reviews of about 86,000 airport workers following November's terrorist attacks across the French capital that killed 130 people and injured more than 360, and a subsequent check that found 57 airport workers on a terrorist watch-list.

Greek aviation officials said the EgyptAir pilot “was in good spirits and thanked the controller in Greek” minutes after entering Greek airspace. Less than an hour later, they said, Greek air traffic controllers tried to radio the flight as it entered Egyptian airspace but, “in spite of repeated calls, the aircraft (did) not respond.”

Greek defense minister Panos Kammenos said the plane was near the Greek islands of Kassos and Karpathos, after entering Egyptian airspace, when it “made swerves and a descent ... 90 degrees left and then 360 degrees to the right.”

Egyptian and Greek military jets searched for the plane where it was thought to have gone down; U.S., British and French military authorities immediately dispatched planes and ships to help in the search.

Families of missing passengers gathered at Cairo's airport, desperate for answers, and were taken to a nearby hotel.

A similar scene occurred at the airport in Paris; Egyptian officials offered to fly grieving relatives from Paris to Cairo.

Thursday's disaster is Egypt's second fatal crash and its third flight-related incident in a year. A Russian jetliner crashed in October, killing 224 passengers and crew, after departing from a resort city in the Sinai Peninsula; Islamic State terrorists said they planted a bomb onboard, but the Egyptian government has not issued a final report.

In March, a man wearing a fake suicide belt hijacked a Cairo-bound EgyptAir flight from the coastal city of Alexandria. The flight diverted to Cyprus, where the hijacker was arrested; no injuries occurred in that incident.

Tourism, a leading source of foreign currency for Egypt, has plunged since a January 2011 uprising ousted former dictator Hosni Mubarak. Ensuing political unrest and increasing terror attacks have kept tourism down from its pre-2011 levels, although many tourist experts here have pointed to improvements in recent months.

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at bhiel@tribweb.com.

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