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Egypt Marks Anniversary of Russian Metrojet Plane Bombing

CAIRO (AFP) – Egypt on Monday marked with a church service a year since jihadists bombed a Russian airliner carrying holidaymakers from a Red Sea resort, an attack that crippled the Arab country’s economy.

The Islamic State group claimed it brought the plane down on October 31, 2015, saying it had smuggled explosives into the aircraft before its departure from the resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.

All 224 people on board were killed when the bomb went off minutes after the Metrojet A-321 had taken off for the Russian city of Saint Petersburg.

At a service in a cathedral in the resort on Monday attended by Egyptian officials and Russia’s ambassador, priests read out prayers next to an alter on which flowers had been placed.

In Saint Petersburg, relatives of some of the 244 people killed attended ceremonies to mark the disaster.

Mourners lit candles at a service at the northwestern city’s Holy Trinity Izmailovsky Cathedral and held a minute of silence at 7:14 am (0414 GMT), the exact time when the plane disappeared from the radar.

The central Saint Isaac’s Cathedral also tolled its bells 224 times, while a memorial concert was set to be held in the city later in the day.

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, led prayers for the victims in Moscow.

Russia reacted to last year’s disaster by cancelling all flights to Egypt, and Britain also cancelled flights to the resort town, badly affecting a tourism sector already battered by unrest following the country’s 2011 revolution.

On November 17, President Vladimir Putin said Russian investigators had found evidence of a bomb on board, and vowed to punish those responsible.

In February, his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi acknowledged for the first time that “terrorism” caused the crash, although the government has not yet issued an official report on its cause.

Sisi had previously dismissed as “propaganda” the IS claim that it downed the airliner.

– Russian tourists ‘to return’ –

On Sunday, Egypt’s aviation minister and Russian ambassador attended a ceremony in Sharm el-Sheikh in memory of those killed in the disaster.

The minister, Sherif Fathy, reiterated the Egyptian government’s condolences to the relatives of victims, expressing “our feelings of sorrow and sadness over the lives we have lost”.

Russian ambassador Serge Kirpichenko said the “sadness is ongoing and will never go away”.

The envoy said he was confident flights from Russia would soon resume.

“We are certain the day and time are approaching, and quickly, for the return of Russian tourism to Egypt,” said Kirpichenko.

“We are working on this day and night.”

The ban on flights had severely impacted Egypt’s struggling economy, denting its tourist revenues at a time it faces a shortage of dollars.

Citizens of Russia and Britain make up about 40 percent of foreign tourists to Egypt.

In February, Prime Minister Ismail Sharif told state television the North African country had already lost up to $1.3 billion since the disaster.

Egypt is still battling the Islamist State group’s Egypt branch in the Sinai Peninsula.

Security services have not announced any arrests relating to the airliner bombing, or publicly disclosed how the bomb was brought on board the plane at Sharm el-Sheikh airport.

In August, the military announced it killed the head of IS in Sinai Abu Doaa al-Ansari.

The group’s large-scale attacks against police and army checkpoints and barracks have become less regular in 2016, but they have kept up a campaign of roadside bombings in Sinai.

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