UK

Russian Plane Crash: RAF Ready To Rescue 20,000 Britons As Sharm El Sheikh's Airport Security Slammed

05/11/2015 08:22 GMT | Updated 05/11/2015 12:59 GMT

Emergency plans to shuttle home as many as 20,000 Britons stranded in Egypt will reportedly be in place by tomorrow, officials have said, as security at the airport was slammed with travellers reporting incidents including one where a staff member manning the scanning machine was seen "playing Candy Crush on his phone".

The security claims emerged as the UK suspended all flights from Sharm el-Sheikh after it was revealed a bomb planted by the Islamic State was likely to have caused Saturday's crash which killed 224 people.

Mr Hammond told Sky News the first of 20,000 Brits stranded in Sharm el Sheikh could return home tomorrow.

TheMail Online reports that two C17 aircraft - normally used to airlift troops or military equipment and based at RAF Brize Norton - are on notice to deploy to the Middle East.

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The first of the 20,000 Britons stranded in Egypt may arrive back in the UK tomorrow

The planes would reportedly be used to shuttle tourists to Cyprus where civilian carriers will be waiting, but the mission is thought to be unlikely to take place until the weekend.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We are agreeing a security protocol with the airlines which will enable the return of passengers as early as possible and as close as possible to their scheduled departures."

The plans come as holiday makers and aviation experts spoke of lack security measures at the Red Sea resort and as the head of Sharm el-Sheikh airport has been replaced. Adel Mahgoub, chairman of the state company that runs Egypt's civilian airports, said Abdel-Wahab Ali had been "promoted" to become his assistant and that the move had nothing to do with media scepticism surrounding the airport's security, ITV reported.

Travellers have reported that bags have been left unattended at the airport, where security staff appeared disinterested. They also said airside workers had been allowed to pass through the airport unchecked.

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Egyptian soldiers collect personal belongings of plane crash victims at the crash site of a passenger plane bound for St. Petersburg in Russia that crashed in Hassana, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula

Sky News quotes Verna McKeich as saying: "I was shocked by the lack of airport security. The person manning the scanning machine was playing Candy Crush on his phone.

"Once we were through, my exact words to my husband were that I hoped nobody on our flight has a bomb today."

The broadcaster also quotes Jamie Mattison who flew to Sharm el Sheikh last year.

He said: "The security official on the baggage scanner was too busy sleeping as opposed to looking at the bags going through the scanner.

"Since then we have decided never to return. Not a chance Sharm airport is to up to global standards."

The airport has a reputation for being understaffed at security checkpoints, CNN safety analyst David Soucie said, and a website with passenger comments about their airport experience had complaints about security employees who stole items or acted rudely.

But Soucie also noted that the airport has stricter-than-average security checks for passengers, including putting all baggage through a barometric pressure device that would activate a bomb with altitude-sensitive detonators.

If a bombing were an inside job, however, it wouldn't have been stopped by security measures the average airline passenger goes through, he told CNN.

The airport, which deals with some 160 flights daily, is said to have increased its security in the wake of the bombing, something that was noted by British experts who arrived there to assess it on Wednesday. Uk Officials had also reportedly observed that security procedures were "poorly supervised" and "lack consistency."

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has been quoted as saying: "We are cognizant of the interest and the concern, and have provided additional security arrangements in all of our airports for the protection of our tourists and also to indicate that we are not failing any efforts."

CNN's Soucie said Sharm el-Sheikh Airport was not good at controlling access outside the terminals citing an incident in May when a mentally disturbed man slipping through a hole in a wall and tampered with a plane. The man, according to a report in the Cairo Post, approached a plane sitting on the runway and tried to open a door. He was said to have been arrested after moving a block in front of the plane's wheel.

David Cameron on Thursday said he was holding another COBRA meeting later this morning "overseeing how we are helping British tourists in Sharm el-Sheikh". The meeting comes as stranded passengers at the airport on Wednesday night demanded to know when they would be brought home. The terror alert also throws the travel plans of thousands more into chaos because around 900,000 Britons fly to the Red Sea every year.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said on Wednesday there was a "significant possibility" the disaster was caused by an attack.

On Thursday he was more forthright telling Sky News: “We have looked at the whole information picture, including that claim but of course lots of other bits of information as well and concluded that there is a significant possibility. I can’t put it stronger than that.”

Downing Street said the information that prompted the suspension included "some that has recently come to light".

According to CNN, US security services concluded a bomb was "likely" to blame after looking at intelligence reports ahead of last weekend's crash.

The unnamed source told the broadcaster: "There is a definite feeling it was an explosive device planted in luggage or somewhere on the plane," adding that though there was no specific threat, "there had been additional activity in Sinai that had caught our attention."

Earlier, Downing Street said the Metrojet airliner may have been brought down by an "explosive device", the government suspending all British flights to and from the holiday resort ahead of a team of British experts arriving in the Sinai to assess security at the airport. London's move was angrily denounced by Egypt's foreign minister as a "premature and unwarranted".

British and US assessments run counter to statements emanating from Cairo and Moscow, with neither government accepting there was evidence a bomb had been planted.

Both countries have reason to hope a planned attack was not responsible. Public opinion in Russia might question Moscow’s military involvement in Syria if a link was made between Russian airstrikes and a retaliatory attack on a civilian plane, while Egypt fears its already-beleaguered tourist industry would suffer further if such an attack were proven.

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People grieve at an entrance of Pulkovo airport outside St. Petersburg, Russia, during a day of national mourning for the plane crash victims, on Monday

Downing Street said around 20,000 Britons remain stranded in Sinai, the area serviced by the airport at Sharm el-Sheikh, although reports on Thursday suggested the number could be closer to 10,000.

The decision to suspend flights followed a meeting of COBR on Wednesday evening, chaired by the prime minister.

On suspending the flights, a Downing Street spokesman said: "The safety of British citizens will always be our first priority and in light of the latest picture about what may have caused the crash, we are clear that this is the right thing to do."

“We welcome the close co-operation with the Egyptian authorities, particularly the efforts that they have made since the Prime Minister and President spoke last night,” the spokesman added.

“Hundreds of thousands of British holidaymakers enjoy Sharm el-Sheikh every year and we recognise the importance of their visits to Egypt.”

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