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Britons warned against Sharm el-Sheikh airport travel amid jet crash bomb fears

The Government has warned against "all but essential" travel via Sharm el-Sheikh airport in Egypt after concluding that intelligence suggested there was a "significant possibility" that a Russian airliner was brought down by a bomb.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said all flights to the popular Red Sea resort had been halted and emergency security boosts were being put in place to ensure British tourists could fly home safely.

The decision follows a review of the airport's security by a team of British experts which reported to a meeting of the Government's emergency Cobra committee chaired by Prime Minister David Cameron.

Egypt's foreign minister attacked the move as a "premature and unwarranted" step which would damage his country's tourism industry.

But Mr Hammond said the safety of Britons came "above all other considerations" and the Government was prepared to take the criticism.

The dispute with Cairo - which has dismissed claims by so-called Islamic State to have brought down the aircraft with the loss of 224 lives on Saturday - came as Egypt's president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi arrived in the UK for a scheduled visit.

He is due at Number 10 for talks with David Cameron tomorrow.

Mr Hammond said the decision to close down flights to the airport had been taken "very reluctantly" and praised Egyptian authorities for "moving heaven and earth to meet our demands on the ground".

Stranded passengers would be returned to the UK, he said, but reassured others out there that t he popular Red Sea resort itself was still considered safe.

"We are working with the airlines and the Egyptian authorities to put in place emergency procedures for additional screening and additional security to ensure that they can get home safely either on their original scheduled return dates or if they wish to leave earlier - though I should emphasise that we are not changing out threat level with regard to the Sharm el-Sheikh resort itself."

Mr Hammond apologised for the "immense disruption and inconvenience" caused - including to people who had been forced to return to hotels from the airport.

"I also recognise the immense impact that this will have on the Egyptian economy.

"But we have to put the safety and security of British nationals above all other considerations.

"When we are in possession of information we will not hesitate to act on it in order to protect that security and we will take whatever criticisms we receive."

The US also said initial intelligence suggested the plane was brought down by a bomb.

All those on board - mostly Russian tourists - were killed when the a Metrojet flight bound for St Petersburg from Sharm came down in the Sinai desert on Saturday.

The nature of the crash and the lack of an SOS call have fuelled speculation that it was caused by a bomb or missile, although Cairo has sought to dismiss claims that the crash was the work of Islamist terrorists, such as the self-styled Islamic State.

Mr Hammond said the Cobra meeting of senior ministers and security officials " reviewed all the information that we have available from a range of sources" about the plane crash.

"As a result of that review we have concluded there is a significant possibility that that crash was caused by an explosive device on board the aircraft."

It was reported intercepted communications played some part in a preliminary US finding that a bomb had been planted on the aircraft by IS's Sinai affiliate - though there had been no formal conclusions drawn.

Examination of evidence such as the black box flight recorders is continuing.

Mr Hammond said he had spoken to his angry counterpart in Cairo, Sameh Shoukry.

"I recognise his concern. Of course this will have a huge negative impact for Egypt. But with respect to him, he hasn't seen all the information that we have," he said.

"And while we regard the Egyptians as very important partners - and we want to work with them not just on airport security but on all aspects of the development of their economy and the building of Anglo-Egyptian relations - when we see something which we believe represents a threat to British nationals we have to act on it and the other consequences have to be dealt with."

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

The initial assessment of the security arrangements at Sharm el-Sheikh airport from the team of UK experts was that "the Egyptian authorities had stepped up their efforts but that more remains to be done", a spokeswoman said.

"It is in our mutual interests to work together to do all we can to get back to normal service.

It would take at least until Friday to get in place sufficiently secure arrangements to begin bringing tourists home - with stranded passengers being taken to hotels, she cautioned.

EasyJet said it had cancelled its flights to and from Sharm El Sheikh tomorrow and would keep future flights "under review, pending further advice from the Government.

"Passengers booked to travel to Sharm El Sheikh in the next two weeks are able to request a refund, or change their flights to an alternative date or destination free of charge.

"We are doing all possible to keep all affected passengers informed and have provided hotel rooms for those delayed overnight this evening. We are working with the UK Government to work out the basis upon which easyJet can fly passengers in Sharm El Sheikh back home," it said.

"The safety and security of its passengers and crew is easyJet's highest priority."

A host of travel operators have responded to the Government's warnings by grounding flights.

Thomson Airways confirmed it has cancelled all outbound flights to Sharm el-Sheikh up to and including Thursday, November 12.

A statement said: "All customers booked to travel to Sharm el-Sheikh in this period will be provided with a full refund. As a priority, we are contacting customers due to travel tomorrow and ask those travelling later in the week to please bear with us as we manage this evolving situation.

"Our experienced overseas resort team will be updating all our customers currently on holiday in Sharm el-Sheikh of the change in FCO travel advice and we will be making arrangements to return these customers to the UK."

All customers on holiday in Sharm el-Sheikh who travelled on Thomson Airways on a flight-only basis are advised to immediately contact the 24-hour holiday line +44 33 33 365 147.

British Airways said flights to and from the resort would probably be delayed by 24 hours.

A spokesman said: "The safety and security of our customers and crew is always our top priority. We would never operate a flight unless it was safe to do so."

Customers are advised to contact the airline at BritishAirways.com.

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