The airport of the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh in the Sinai Peninsula is in disarray six days after a Russian airliner leaving the area went down in the desert in what US and UK authorities are calling a possible terrorist attack. Thousands of stranded foreigners are clamoring to get on planes and leave the popular beach-side locale.
The Islamic State terror group's Sinai affiliate has repeatedly claimed responsibility for the for the crashing of Kogalymavia Flight 9268, calling it a retaliation for Russia's support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but the Russian and Egyptian governments have both dismissed the likelihood that the group could have taken down the plane.
On Friday, UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond reiterated the British government's position that there is a "significant possibility" that the Russian plane crashed due to a bomb, echoing a similar statement made by US President Barack Obama on Thursday.
After British intelligence suggested earlier this week that the plane had been bombed, the British government suspended commercial flights between the UK and Sharm El-Sheikh — a decision that affected nearly 20,000 vacationers. It is in the process of coordinating evacuation flights that are due to begin on Friday. Logistical complications have delayed the effort but at least two British flights have already departed the area.
On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin followed suit but went further and suspended all flights between Russia and Egypt after Alexander Bortnikov, the director of the Russian Federal Security Service, said it would be a "reasonable move." The Russian government has not elaborated on alternative arrangements to bring its tourists home.
British air carriers tried to begin evacuating on Friday, but the British airliner EasyJet complained publicly that the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority was delaying its flights. Egyptian officials shot back that UK's security procedures were clogging up traffic.
"The British airline wants to schedule 18 flights at the same time and wants to transport British passengers from Sharm al-Sheikh without their luggage, which we would have to transport later," Egyptian Minister of Civil Aviation Hossam Kamal said. "This constitutes a huge burden on the airport because its capacity does not allow for that. We have asked them to organize eight flights only and one plane will transport luggage."
British Ambassador to Egypt John Casson is in Sharm al-Sheikh to help manage the situation, and said on Friday that the stranded vacationers would soon be home.
"Flights are coming in which will allow us to take more people home today," he said.
As he spoke, approximately 360 passengers boarded flights back to the UK. Two EasyJet flights have since departed the area.
Egypt's foreign minister attacked the the suspension of flights as a "premature and unwarranted" move that could damage Egypt's tourism sector — which accounts for over 10 percent of GDP.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said earlier this week that the situation in Sinai "is under our full control." To help ensure that's the case, his government deployed special forces to Sharm el-Sheikh on Friday, a day after Egyptian Civil Aviation authorities told VICE News that Abdel-Wahab Ali, the head of the area's airport, had been moved to a different position following the crash of the Russian flight. When asked why the Sharm el-Sheikh airport chief was removed, the aviation authority replied that he had been "promoted" to deputy chief of operations for the Egyptian Airports Company, and that the move had been "planned for some time."