Nina Lushchenko’s nephew Pavel and daughter Veronika react at her grave, after her funeral at a cemetery in the village of Sitnya, 80 km (about 50 miles) of Veliky Novgorod, yesterday.—AP Nina Lushchenko’s nephew Pavel and daughter Veronika react at her grave, after her funeral at a cemetery in the village of Sitnya, 80 km (about 50 miles) of Veliky Novgorod, yesterday.—AP

LONDON: British Prime Minister David Cameron declared yesterday it was "more likely than not" that a bomb brought down a Metrojet flight packed with Russian vacationers - a scenario that officials from Russia and Egypt have tried to dismiss as premature speculation. Cameron said he had grounded all flights to and from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, stranding thousands of British tourists at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, because of "intelligence and information" indicating that a bomb was the likely culprit in the crash Saturday that killed 224 people.

Islamic State group has claimed that it brought down the plane in the Sinai, a report rejected by Russian and Egyptian officials as not credible. Egypt is fighting an Islamic insurgency in the area where the plane crashed. Cameron said he had "every sympathy" with the Egyptians, who rely so heavily on tourism, but added he had to "put the safety of British people first."

"We don't know for certain that it was a terrorist bomb ... (but it's a) strong possibility," Cameron said at his London office at 10 Downing St. shortly before a previously scheduled meeting with Egypt's president. "There's still an investigation taking place in Egypt. We need to see the results of that investigation."

Putin talks

He said he would call Russian President Vladimir Putin later yesterday to discuss the crash. A British team is working to tighten security at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport with an eye toward resuming flights. Cameron said "we want to start as soon as possible" to bring tourists home, and empty planes will be flying out from Britain to do that, but it would take some time.

British Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said Egypt will have to put in place tighter long-term security measures before British flights will resume flying. He told the House of Commons on Thursday that British security teams sent to Sharm el-Sheikh "will be working intensively with the Egyptian authorities to allow normal scheduled operations to recommence."

McLoughlin said short-term measures, including different luggage-handing arrangements, would allow the estimated 20,000 British citizens in the Sharm el-Sheikh area, many of them tourists, to fly home. Germany's Lufthansa Group announced Thursday it would cancel flights of its subsidiary airlines - Edelweiss and Eurowings - to Sharm el-Sheikh. Flights to Cairo would not be affected, the company said.

Egypt's minister of civil aviation, Hossam Kamal, insisted yesterday that the country's airports do comply with international security standards and said "the investigation team does not have yet any evidence or data confirming this hypothesis" of a bomb bringing down the plane.

A spokesman for Putin, Dmitry Peskov, insisted that aviation investigators were working on all possible theories as to why the Airbus A321-200 crashed Saturday in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula 23 minutes after taking off, killing everyone on board. He said naming just one possibility was mere speculation.

"One cannot rule out a single theory, but at this point there are no reasons to voice just one theory as reliable - only investigators can do that," Peskov told reporters in Moscow.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said if Britain had information about a bomb on the plane, it's "really shocking" that hasn't been shared with Russia. She urged Britain to immediately give any such information to the investigators.

Cairo concerns

Egyptian officials have condemned Britain's travel ban as an overreaction. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, who was in London on a visit yesterday, has called the IS claim "propaganda."

Russia's top aviation official, Alexander Neradko, said investigators are pursuing several theories as to why the plane crashed, including looking for traces of explosives on victims' bodies, their baggage and the plane debris as well as studying other "aspects linked to a possible terrorist attack onboard."

Neradko said yesterday the probe is likely to take several months and called for caution in speculating about the likely causes of the crash.

In the ancient city of Luxor, Egyptian Antiquities Minister Mamdouh Eldamaty rejected the US and British bomb allegations outright. "(The crash) is not a terror act. It was an accident," he declared as authorities opened three tombs to the public for the first time in an effort to encourage tourism. "(It's) very sad what happened, but we have to wait for the result of the investigation."

Metrojet suspended all flights of Airbus A321 jets in its fleet after the crash, the Russian Federal Transport Agency said Thursday. The company has ruled out a pilot error or a technical fault as a possible cause of the crash, drawing criticism from Russian officials for speaking with such certainty too soon. Intercepted communications have played a role in the tentative conclusion that the Islamic State group's Sinai affiliate planted an explosive device on the plane, said a US official briefed on the matter. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss intelligence matters publicly.

The official and others said there had been no formal judgment rendered by the CIA or other US intelligence agencies, and that forensic evidence from the blast site, including the airplane's black box, was still being analyzed. The official added that intelligence analysts don't believe the operation was ordered by Islamic State leaders in Raqqa, Syria, but possibly planned and executed by the Islamic State's affiliate in the Sinai.

Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International, said a bomb could be placed on a plane in an endless number of ways, including the possibility that someone with airside access or people on catering teams or maintenance crews were involved.

"The options are almost too many to consider," he said in a telephone interview from Gambia. In Sharm el-Sheikh, British tourists said they really enjoyed the resort. Paul Modley, a 49-year-old Londoner, has travelled there seven times in the last nine years.

"We understand why the government have done it, but I am really worried for the Egyptian people because - particularly in the Red Sea resorts - they are so dependent on tourism," said Modley.

On the ground in the Sinai, rescue teams have retrieved 140 bodies from the scene and more than 100 body parts. Russian rescue workers, combing a 40 square kilometer (15.4 sq. mile) area, should finish their search for remains and wreckage by yesterday evening, a top official said.

Grief continued to roil St. Petersburg and its suburbs, as mourners brought more flowers, candles and paper planes to the city's imperial-era square and the airport where the crashed Metrojet flight had been due to land. In the ancient Russian city of Veliky Novgorod, 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of St. Petersburg, the first crash victim was buried yesterday after a church service in a whitewashed 16th-century church overlooking the Volkhov River.

Family and friends said goodbye to Nina Lushchenko, 60, who worked in a school canteen, remembering her as a good mother and grandmother. -AP