CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt has promoted the Sharm al-Sheikh airport chief days after a plane crash that was claimed by Islamist militants and raised questions about plane security at the tourist gateway.
Britain said on Thursday that a bomb planted by a group affiliated with Islamic State, which operates in the Sinai Peninsula, may have been the cause of the incident which killed 224 people on the plane that was flying to Russia.
Egypt has said there was no evidence a blast brought down the plane and promoted airport chief Captain Abdul Wahhab Ali to take on extra duties at the national airport operator despite the security questions at Sharm, a resort popular with British, Russian and other European holidaymakers seeking winter sun.
“Abdul Wahhab Ali was chosen for this post because of his qualifications and capabilities,” national airport operator Adel Mahjoub said in a statement.
Airport sources said the promotion would come into effect on Nov. 6 and was not connected to the crash.
Egypt’s civil aviation minister Hossam Kamal said his country adheres to international safety and security standards and there was no evidence a blast had brought down the plane.
Aside from the loss of lives, at stake is President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s assertions that he has brought under control militants fighting to topple his government, as well as tourism, a vital source of hard currency for Egypt.
At Sharm al-Sheikh airport, security appeared to have been tightened on Thursday with security forces patrolling the terminals and not allowing drivers, tour agents or others to loiter whilst awaiting tourist arrivals, a witness said.
But previous security breaches and the timing of the airport chief’s promotion have raised some doubts about safety.
A day after Islamic militants claimed responsibility for downing the Russian plane, two men snuck through the fence at another Red Sea airport, in the resort of Hurghada, and were arrested before they reached the runway, a judicial source said.
The source said the youths were criminals planning a robbery but some local media had earlier reported that the men had reached an airplane bound for Spain.
“How did two youths who were not traveling, without passports, without visas, with nothing, get to the airplane?” asked Amr Abdelhamid, presenter of a current affairs program on private television channel TEN.
In another incident in April, a donkey was found wandering around the carpark at Cairo airport and was captured on a video that went viral, with Egyptians tweeting sarcastic comments hashtagged in Arabic “how did the donkey enter the airport?”
“He thought and thought and exploited a security loophole,” one person tweeted, mocking what they said was the official explanation for the breach, also carried in newspapers.
In 1997, Islamist militant gunmen killed 58 tourists and four Egyptians at an archaeological site near Luxor. Egypt’s tourism industry took years to recover from the attack.
Britain said it was working with airlines and Egyptian authorities to put in place additional security and screening measures to allow thousand of stranded British holidaymakers to get home, but no flights would be returning on Thursday.
The Irish aviation authority, which is taking part in the official investigation, directed all Irish airlines on Wednesday not to fly to or from the Sinai Peninsula until further notice.
Germany’s Foreign Ministry also urged travelers to avoid the Sinai Peninsula and Deutsche Lufthansa (LHAG.DE) suspended flights to the area.
Shares in tour company Thomas Cook (TCG.L) opened down 2.1 percent as the United Kingdom canceled flights to Egypt, which depends on tourism and foreign investment to generate hard currency the country needs to import food and fuel.
Travelers going from Egyptian airports are required to put their luggage through scanners before check-in and boarding.
Additional security measures are in place for flights traveling to particular destinations, notably London, at the request of those authorities, airport security sources said.
These may involve, for instance, passengers removing their shoes for inspection, the sources said.
Egyptian intelligence and security agencies also carry out background checks on anyone seeking employment at any airport.
Britain had also given Egypt advanced explosives detection technology to use at Sharm al-Sheikh airport which were not even available in Cairo, the sources said, due to the large number of British tourists heading to the area.
Asked what extra security measures could be introduced, a spokeswoman for British Prime Minister David Cameron said: “We’ll be looking at the process from A to B from when a passenger arrives at Sharm al-Sheikh airport through to when they’re getting on a plane right up to the point of them being on the plane.”
Egyptian and Russian officials have stressed that it was too early to draw conclusions about the cause of the crash.
Despite the cancellations, flights continue to arrive at Sharm, said Kamal. He said 23 flights were set to arrive from Russia on Thursday, eight from Ukraine, three from Italy and two from Saudi Arabia, in addition to 22 domestic arrivals.
Additional reporting by Abdel Nasser Aboul Fadl and Haithem Ahmed in Cairo and Youssri Ahmed in Ismailia; Editing by Michael Georgy and Anna Willard