Conflicting claims fuel confusion over Metrojet disaster cause

Russian and Egyptian investigators are combing through the mangled wreckage of a Metrojet airliner that broke up over the Sinai Peninsula on Saturday, killing everyone on board. While a senior official with the airline dismissed mechanical failure as a cause, Russia's chief aviation regulator said talk of terrorism is premature. Gwen Ifill reports.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Officials from at least five countries are investigating why a Russian jetliner broke up in midair and crashed in Egypt this weekend.

    There are many questions tonight, but little agreement so far that may have explained what happened. Wreckage lay strewn across miles of desert after Saturday's crash, leaving a giant mangled puzzle for Russian and Egyptian investigators. They're looking for any clues to what downed the airliner and killed 224 people, everyone on board.

    But as a top Russian official at the scene said yesterday, that remains far from clear.

  • VIKTOR SOROCHENKO, Russian Interstate Aviation Committee (through interpreter):

    Initial examination showed that, at the moment, we can't exclude any version of the crash. We will be looking into all possibilities.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    What is known is the flight took off from the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh bound for Saint Petersburg. It had reached 31,000 feet, cruising altitude, when it broke up over the Sinai Peninsula, just 23 minutes after takeoff. Little else has been confirmed, and conflicting reports have fed confusion.

    In Moscow today, a senior official with the Russian airline Metrojet pointed to some unnamed external factor.

  • ALEXANDER SMIRNOV, Deputy General Director, Metrojet (through interpreter):

    There are no such faults, like engine failure, system failure. There is no such combination of systems failure that could lead to a plane breaking up in the air. The only possible explanation for a breakup of the aircraft in the air could be a certain impact, some mechanical or physical impact.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Asked if it was a terror attack, the official said only, "Anything is possible."

    But the Russian government's chief aviation regulator said all such talk is premature. The Russians also dismissed a claim that an Islamic State affiliate brought down the plane, saying the group doesn't have that ability.

    Meanwhile, Reuters reported that initial data from the black box recorders shows no sign the plane was hit by a missile. They didn't rule out sabotage or even a bomb on board.

    That left Russian President Vladimir Putin to promise Moscow will get to the bottom of the mystery.

  • PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through interpreter):

    Without any doubt, everything has to be done to make sure we have an objective description of what happened. We have to know what happened and to react in the appropriate way.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But getting an objective description from Russian or Egyptian officials has proved difficult in previous crashes. In 1999, an Egypt Air flight went down off Massachusetts. A U.S. investigation found the co-pilot deliberately flew the plane into the ocean. But Egypt's government refused to accept that finding.

    And, last year, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed in Eastern Ukraine. An international committee has since determined that Russian-backed rebels shot down the plane, a finding that Moscow rejected.

    Meanwhile, bodies from this latest crash have begun arriving in Saint Petersburg. The city is officially in mourning through tomorrow.

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