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By Abdelnasser Aboelfadl and Tim Hepher
CAIRO/PARIS, May 19 (Reuters) - Egypt launched an official investigation into the disappearance of an EgyptAir flight on Thursday, heralding what safety experts called a daunting probe into the apparent loss of an Airbus jet with 66 people on board.
The A320 disappeared from controllers’ screens over the Mediterranean south of Greece en route from Paris to Cairo, with Athens saying the plane swerved in mid-air before plunging from cruising height.
Egypt will lead the probe with the help of officials from France, where the 12-year-old jet was built and which had the second-largest number of people on board after Egypt, Ayman al-Moqadem, head of Egypt’s air accident agency, said.
A French minister said three investigators from the BEA air crash investigation agency were on their way to Egypt, together with an expert from Airbus.
There was no immediate word on whether the United States, where engine maker Pratt & Whitney is based, would take part.
Under global aviation rules, the country that produced the engines can expect to take part in an air crash investigation.
But a U.S. official said U.S. agencies there fear Egypt will try to keep American investigators at arms length due to historical tensions which date back to the crash of EgyptAir 990 off the U.S. coast in 1999.
Relations between Egyptian and U.S. aviation agencies have been tense since U.S. investigators publicly concluded that a suicidal co-pilot deliberately crashed the Boeing 767.
Egyptian investigators accused the National Transportation Safety Board of twisting evidence to support its suicide theory and produced their own report citing technical problems.
Relations also appeared cool following the bombing of a Russian jet equipped with similar engines over Sinai in October.
“I think certainly during the early and even middle part of that investigation ... a lot of our people were kept at arm’s length,” U.S. House Intelligence Committee member Adam Schiff told MSNBC.
Safety experts said Egypt had moved noticeably more quickly this time to discuss possible causes including terrorism, though other technical flaws or human error could not be ruled out.
“This is going to be a difficult investigation,” a former investigator familiar with the region said.
Egypt said investigators would start searching for black boxes and gather evidence as soon as the crash site was found.
France’s BEA is expected to play a major role in the underwater hunt after leading the search for an Air France jet that crashed in the Atlantic in 2009 and an Egyptian jet that crashed off Sharm el-Sheikh in 2004, killing French tourists.
The black boxes are equipped with pingers that usually last for 30 days, but the search may be hampered by deep waters requiring the use of underwater robots.
Britain and Greece have also offered to assist, Moqadem said. He did not say if the offers were accepted. (Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein and Tim Hepher; Editing by Lin Noueihed and Tom Heneghan)