The Russians have been saying they would not jump to conclusions about the nature of the Metrojet crash in Egypt until a lengthy investigation was concluded but, on Tuesday, Russian security officials suddenly declared the plane was indeed destroyed by a terrorist attack. There have also been reports of police detaining or arresting airport workers, although the Egyptian government has disputed those accounts.
The catalyst for these developments appears to be closed-circuit TV footage from the day of the crash, which Fox News describes as showing “a baggage handler carrying a suitcase from an airport building to another man, who was loading luggage onto the plane.” Investigators are also asking about “two men accused of leaving a luggage-scanning machine briefly unattended while passengers were boarding the plane.”
Furthermore, Russian investigators apparently found explosive residue in the wreckage of the plane, as FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov told Putin when concluding that a “homemade explosive device blew up on the plane shortly after takeoff,” with the power of two pounds of TNT.
“I can certainly say that this was a terrorist act,” Bortnikov told reporters.
“There’s no statute of limitations for this, we need to know all of their names,” said Putin. “We’re going to look for them everywhere wherever they are hiding. We will find them in any place on Earth and punish them.”
To that end, Russia has offered a $50 million reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators. Putin also announced that Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria would be “intensified so that the criminals realize that retribution is inevitable.” He invoked the United Nations charter and Russia’s right to “self-defense” to justify action against anyone who would shelter the bombers.
CNN quotes U.S. defense officials saying Russia conducted “a significant number of strikes” near the ISIS capital of Raqqa in northern Syria on Tuesday morning.
This is a very sharp departure from the warnings against jumping to conclusions Putin himself issued only yesterday. The UK Telegraph reports that Putin convened a meeting of Bortnikov and other security and defense advisers as soon as he returned from the G-20 summit in Turkey. The meeting was televised, which suggests Putin was apprised of the FSB’s conclusions while he was either in Turkey, or in transit back to Moscow. Russia’s earlier decision to cancel flights to Egypt, and ban Egypt’s national airline from flying to Russia, indicate suspicions have been growing darker even as the Russians publicly called for a lengthy investigation.
Putin’s announcement also seems to open a breach between Russia and Egypt, which is still resisting the terrorist-attack narrative. In fact, spokesmen from both the Egyptian Interior and Civil Aviation ministries denied to CNN that any arrests have been made at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport, despite other reports that said at least two employees had been detained.