Monday, Oct. 17, an Air France flight landed in Paris with 67 coffins, victims of the Egyptian Flash Airlines air crash of January 3, 2004 over the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh. All 148 people aboard died in the disaster; 134 were French tourists who had spent their Christmas vacation in the Sinai sunshine.
The Cairo-Paris flight crashed three minutes after takeoff.
To this day, 22 months later, what caused the airliner to plunge into the Red Sea is “unknown” to the Egyptian and French authorities. It is accepted by both as an unsolved enigma.
An easier question to answer is: why did it take so long for the bodies recovered from the water to be returned to the families. (Bereaved relatives established a token mass grave on the shore for the loved ones who remained missing.) The answer is that the Egyptian government consistently refused to hand the remains over. The French authorities were deaf to the families’ pleas. Eventually, they were released as a result of legal action. But the handover took place without ceremony or media coverage, a sign that the hand which kept the episode dark was still at work.
Did 148 people, including many children, lose their lives for no reason at all?
On November 11, 2004, eleven months after the event, the Egyptian civil aviation authority announced the release of a 430-page report covering all aspects of the crash. It was said to be available to the public on Internet site http://www.civilaviation.gov.eg/flash.pdf.
The interested parties who tried clicking on a few days later received the frustrating notice: The page cannot be displayed.
An Israeli air hijack alert over the Gulf of Aqaba was ignored
Sharm el Sheikh is located at the southern mouth of the Straits of Aqaba north of the meeting-point between three waterways, the Gulf of Suez, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. The coast of Sharm el Sheik directly faces the western shores of Saudi Arabia. The Gulf of Aqaba runs north from the Red Sea resort of Sharm, up to the Israel-Jordanian border and is enclosed by the twin ports of Eilat and Aqaba.
Three days after the crash, the local Eilat radio station The Voice of the Red Sea broadcast pressing phone-ins by local citizens who had a tale to tell: they reported that early Saturday morning, minutes before the Egyptian airliner went down, sirens began wailing from the Israeli air and air defense base just outside the town. In no time, Israeli fighter jets took to the air and anti-air batteries placed on the ready.
The radio announcer who interviewed them, Eran Kurtz, asked each the witnesses if they were absolutely sure of their almost identical impressions. They were not shaken. Familiar with the regular roar of fighter jets taking off from the air base and the rumble and reek of the generators fueling the missile batteries, they stood by their stories.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that the Eilat base goes on air alert automatically when its radar screens register a flying object closing in from Saudi Arabia or the south, namely the direction of Sharm al Sheikh. The alert system is geared to the worst case scenario of a Saudi passenger liner or fighter jet being hijacked by jehadi terrorists or a flight crew recruited by al Qaeda to crash a plane, 9/11 style, into an Israeli city.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources add that the base had been placed on standby by intelligence alerts for such a contingency over Christmas 2003 and January 2004, peak tourist season in the Sinai and Eilat resorts.
But the Egyptian and French investigators of the Flash Airline disaster refrained from addressing this alert. Their joint team’s immediate conclusion was: “We are looking at a classic plane accident. It could be a technical defect or human error or both.”
Later, when the team released its findings on November 11, 2004, the head investigator Shaker Kelada said: “The plane took a shallow right turn which turned into a steep right turn. Recovery was attempted, but there was not enough recovery before it dived into the sea.”
His version was preceded six weeks early, on September 29, by an intriguing report in a French paper. Le Figaro ran carried a dramatic account of the situation in the cockpit just before the crash:
The enigma of the silent pilot
“With disaster only moments away, the co-pilot three times shouted ‘Bank angle,’ indicating he realized the Flash Airlines Boeing 737 was, in the words of one aviation commentator, ‘beginning to turn upside down.’ But analysis of the black box cockpit recorder, details of which have been leaked to this French newspaper apparently shows that the pilot made no reply.’
An aeronautical specialist told Le Figaro that the senior officer’s failure to respond was probably a classic example of pulling rank. “Could a commander who was an Egyptian air force general, a hero of the Yom Kippur war, accept a criticism from a subordinate?” he asked.
That was the first time anyone had identified the pilot of the doomed plane as a former high-ranking fighter pilot in the 1973 war with Israel. The disclosure did not come from the official team of investigators, but the newspaper.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources which dug deeper into the unexplained air disaster turned up another suggestive fact.
The two top Egyptian Aviation Ministry investigators leading the probe, Captains Shaker Kelada (the team leader quoted above) and Hassan Musharrafa, happened to also head the Egyptian investigation assigned to the mysterious October 1999 EgyptAir Boeing 767 crash off the East Coast of the United States, in which 217 passengers and crew lost their lives.
There is more than one clear line of similarity between the Sharm el Sheikh air crash and the EgyptAir 990 air disaster off the coast of Massachusetts.
It therefore came as no surprise to hear the same official Egyptians fudging in 1999 and 2004. To this day, Egyptian officials stand by their explanation of unusual atmospheric conditions over the American East Coast as the cause of the tragedy. This has never been confirmed by US civil aviation officials. They conducted an exhaustive inquiry which established that the plane was brought down by a co-pilot called Batouty, who was not supposed to be on flight duty. After takeoff, he grabbed the controls and, shouting Allah is great, forced the plane into a steep dive from which it never recovered.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly revealed shortly after that first crash that among the passengers was a large group of high-ranking Egyptian officers on their way home from courses in the United States in anti-terror tactics and flying combat helicopters. It was more than possible that Batouti, who was close to Egyptian Islamic Jihad circles in Cairo and Los Angeles, undertook a mission to bring the airliner down and liquidate the entire group.
When in Sinai, al Qaeda is unmentionable
Five years later, the scene played out in the Egyptian Flash Airlines cockpit was different in one respect: the pilot kept silent. Instead of shouting Allah is Great like Batouty, he preserved a stony silence in the face of three desperate calls from his co-pilot to “Bank angle” and save the plane. Otherwise, the two incidents are grimly alike.
While there is no solid proof of a deliberate act of terror behind either disaster, neither has any reasonable explanation ever been offered. Batouty’s cry of Allah is great is on record in America. The two Egyptian investigators who officiated in both inquiries are a fact – although this does not explain why the French government failed to protest their employment in the Sharm el-Sheikh inquiry when their work in the United States was sorely deficient.
Egypt has built up a sizeable record of covering up al Qaeda activities, even when it strikes in the heart of its capital. For Cairo, the name al Qaeda is taboo. It refuses to acknowledge that one fifth of the Sinai desert has been wrested out of its control by al Qaeda and its local collaborators; the dread name was never spoken officially after two bombing series in Sinai that left 100 people dead and virtually wiped out a thriving tourist trade.
What is most worrying is that Paris and even Washington, which maintains military forces in Sharm el Sheikh, the Gulf of Aqaba and North Sinai, play along with Cairo’s policy of burying its head in the sand. Israel’s defense authorities have failed to check al Qaeda’s infiltration of the Gaza strip – Israel’s military intelligence chief Maj-Gen Aharon Zeevi disclosed Monday, Oct. 17, that at least 10 al Qaeda operatives had slipped into the Gaza Strip from northern Sinai and set up a base.