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Thursday, May 19, 2016
Egypt: Terrorism Likely. Debris Found
A Cairo-bound EgyptAir flight that went down in the Mediterranean Sea with 66 aboard early Thursday hours after departing from Paris zig-zagged sharply before plunging, according to aviation officials, who said terrorism was a likely cause of the crash.
Government officials from France, Greece and Egypt spoke at separate news conferences even as boats and ships from several countries were scouring the waters off of the Greek island of Karpathos, near where a witness reported seeing a fireball in the sky.
By midday Thursday, an Egyptian plane spotted two orange items believed to be from the missing plane, a Greek military official told The Associated Press.
The official said the items were found 230 miles south-southeast of the island of Crete but still within the Egyptian air traffic control area. One of the items was oblong, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with regulations.
Speaking from Cairo, Egyptian Minister of Aviation Sherif Fathy said all officials can confirm for now is that the AirBus 320, which left Charles de Gaulle Airport at 11:09 p.m. local time Wednesday and was due in Cairo at 3:15 a.m., "vanished."
"I'm not excluding any theory," said Fathy, who responded to a reporter’s question by saying that the possibility of a terror attack as the cause of the crash is "stronger" than technical failure.
The head of Russia's top domestic security agency, Alexander Bortnikov, also said Thursday that "in all likelihood it was a terror attack" causing the crash of the EgyptAir plane, calling for a joint action to track down those responsible for that "monstrous attack."
Greek officials say the plane banked and spun sharply just before dropping.
"The plane carried out a 90-degree turn to the left and a 360-degree turn to the right, falling from 37,000 to 15,000 feet and the signal was lost at around 10,000 feet," Greece’s Defense Minister Panos Kammenos told a news conference Thursday.
Greek air traffic controllers tried to make contact as the plane left Greek airspace, but the pilot did not respond, he said. They continued to try to reach the pilot until 2:29 a.m. Cairo time, when the plane disappeared from the radar 7 miles southeast of the island of Crete.
What is unknown about the plane's final moments in the air could be consistent with terrorism, David Learmount, a leading British air analyst, told Fox News.
"All this says is that the plane was destabilized . . . it doesn't say why," Learmount said.
Learmount said it is possible that a bomb or someone with a gun or knife entering the cockpit could de-stabilize a plane, but also pointed out that a mechanical or technical defect, as well as human error, could also de-stabilize the aircraft.
Flight 804 was carrying 56 passengers, including one child and two babies, three security staff and seven crew members, officials said. Fathy said identities would not be released until relatives could be contacted, but described those on board as including 15 French passengers, 30 Egyptians, one Briton, two Iraqis, one Kuwaiti, one Saudi, one Sudanese, one Chadian, one Portuguese, one Algerian and one Canadian.
Fathy spoke hours after French President Francois Hollande confirmed the plane had crashed, but said there was “no hypothesis” as to why.
Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said it was too early to say whether a technical issue or a terror attack had caused the plane to crash. He told reporters at Cairo airport, “We cannot rule anything out.”
Officials offered conflicting reports of an emergency beacon being picked up two hours after the plane had dropped off from radar. The Egyptian military said that no such distress call was received, but didn’t specify whether they were confirming an initial report or dismissing an EgyptAir statement.
Defense officials told Fox News Thursday that the U.S. Navy is flying P-3 reconnaissance aircraft to assist in the search effort.
Greece's defense minister, Panos Kammenos, also said Greece has a submarine on standby which is participating in a NATO exercise about 100 miles away from the presumed crash area, while F-16 fighter jets stationed on Crete could also be used if necessary. The country already has a navy frigate, two military transport planes and a radar plane participating in the search operation, while he said Egypt had sent a C-130 military transport plane and two F-16s.
Hollande and French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault offered to send military planes and boats to join the search for wreckage.
"We are at the disposition of the Egyptian authorities with our military capacities, with our planes, our boats to help in the search for this plane," Ayrault said. He spoke as Hollande held an emergency meeting at the Elysee Palace.
Later, the French military said a Falcon surveillance jet monitoring the Mediterranean for migrants had been diverted to help search for the EgyptAir plane. Military spokesman Col. Gilles Jaron told The Associated Press that the jet is joining the Egypt-led search effort, and the French Navy may send another plane and a ship to the zone.
Hours after the plane disappeared on Thursday, Fathy told reporters in Cairo that the diameter of the search area will widen, moving further south of the island of Karpathos.
Hollande spoke with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on the phone earlier Thursday and agreed to "closely cooperate to establish as soon as possible the circumstances" in which the EgyptAir flight disappeared, according to a statement issued in Paris.
In Cairo, el-Sissi convened an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, the country's highest security body. The council includes the prime minister and the defense, foreign and interior ministers, in addition to the chiefs of the intelligence agencies.
The Airbus A320 is a widely used twin-engine, single-aisle plane that operates on short and medium-haul routes. Nearly 4,000 A320s are currently in use around the world. The versions EgyptAir operates are equipped to carry 145 passengers.
The French Prosecutor’s Office said they will launch an investigation into the EgyptAir crash. The country remains under a state of emergency after terror attacks by the Islamic State killed 130 people in November.
There was no immediate comment from the U.S. government about the crash.
The Associated Press reported that around 15 family members of passengers on board the missing flight had arrived at Cairo airport Thursday morning. Airport authorities brought doctors to the scene after several distressed family members collapsed.
The incident renewed security concerns months after a Russian passenger plane was blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula. The Russian plane crashed in Sinai on Oct. 31, killing all 224 people on board. Moscow said it was brought down by an explosive device, and a local branch of ISIS has claimed responsibility for planting it.
In 1999, EgyptAir Flight 1990 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, killing all 217 people aboard. U.S. investigators filed a final report that concluded its co-pilot switched off the autopilot and pointed the Boeing 767 downward. But Egyptian officials rejected the notion of suicide altogether, insisting some mechanical reason caused the crash.
In March, an EgyptAir plane was hijacked and diverted to Cyprus. A man who admitted to the hijacking and was described by Cypriot authorities as "psychologically unstable" is in custody.
Fox News' Greg Palkot, Lucas Tomlinson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.