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Russian Airliner Crash Update


Russia says it will suspend all tourist flights to Egypt until it is satisfied that proper security measures have been put in place. It's the closest Russian officials have come to acknowledging that last Saturday's crash of a Russian jetliner could've been an act of terrorism. Up until now, Russian officials have criticized Britain and the U.S. for even suggesting that the plane may have been brought down by a bomb. NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us now from Moscow. And, Corey, this seems like a reversal of what the government has been saying all week, which was that everyone should just wait and see what experts say about the cause of the crash. So what happened?

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Well, the government's actually still portraying this as just a precautionary measure. President Putin's spokesman just said that the decision doesn't mean that the crash was an act of terrorism. This actually all began just a few hours ago when the chief of the federal security service gave a speech for terrorism experts in which he said it would be reasonable to suspend tourist flights until we know what caused the crash. And that was a reversal. You know, at least it was a 90-degree turn from yesterday when the spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry criticized Britain's prime minister for saying that the crash was more likely than not caused by a bomb. She told us reporters that it was shocking if Britain had intelligence about a probable terrorist act and it wasn't sharing that information with Russia.

MONTAGNE: Does this mean, though, that Russia does have intelligence of some sort of its own suggesting that there might have been a bomb?

FLINTOFF: Well, Russian officials aren't saying anything about the intelligence, but we do know that Russian experts have had a lot of time now to comb over the wreckage of the crashed plane and bodies of many of the victims and wreckage from the plane have all been sent back here to Russia. So if there's evidence that the plane was blown up, say, by a bomb in the luggage compartment or something like that, investigators could've had a chance to see it. So it may be that President Putin is acting on early reports from his own investigators and he wants to get out in front of this and show that Russia isn't taking any chances on the security of its citizens in Egypt.

MONTAGNE: And what about those Russian tourists in Egypt? We've heard a lot this morning about British tourists, but there are a lot of Russian tourists.

FLINTOFF: Yes, there are probably even more than the British because Russian tourists supposedly make up about a third of all tourism in Egypt. It's a very popular destination for Russians on these package holiday tours. The Russian tourist agency says there are as many as 40,000 to 45,000 Russian tourists in Egypt right now. And this is just the start of the tourist season. The government says it's working on a plan to get these people home safely. And it looks like it might be similar to what other countries are doing, that is, you know, allowing people to carry only their hand baggage on their returning flights and then shipping their checked baggage home in separate planes. But, you know, either way, it's a massive undertaking on a place that's already swamped by tourists from these other countries who are trying to get home.

MONTAGNE: And, Corey, one reason that Russia was said or thought to be reluctant to acknowledge that the plane could've been brought down by a bomb is that it wouldn't want to raise the possibility that this could be an act of revenge for Russia - its bombing campaign in Syria. Are you hearing that idea being discussed in Russia at this point?

FLINTOFF: Yes, yes, I am. A group that of course was linked to the Islamic State claimed right away that this was retaliation for Russia's military operation in Syria. When that came out, the state-run media said - ran a lot of commentary that just dismissed the idea and said they didn't have the weaponry, you know, to bring down a high-altitude plane. But I talked to a Russian political analyst who says this could be the point where the Russian public starts to link the military campaign in Syria with their own safety. And that could really erode public support for President Putin's Syria bombing campaign.

MONTAGNE: Corey, thanks very much.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Corey Flintoff speaking to us from Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.