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Egypt says it has spotted EgyptAir plane wreckage, obtained images

Investigators say time is running out to find the aircraft's black boxes, with less than two weeks of battery life remaining before they stop emitting signals.

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    People light candles during a candlelight vigil for the victims of EgyptAir flight 804, at the Cairo Opera house in Cairo, Egypt May 26, 2016.
    Mohamed Abd El Ghany
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Egypt on Wednesday said that it spotted and obtained images from the wreckage of the EgyptAir plane that crashed into the Mediterranean last month, killing all 66 people on board, according to a statement by the country's investigation committee.

The committee said that the vessel John Lethbridge, which was contracted by the Egyptian government to join the search for the plane debris and flight data recorders, "had identified several main locations of the wreckage." It added that it obtained images of the wreckage located between the Greek island of Crete and the Egyptian coast.

The next step, the committee said, will be drawing a map showing the wreckage location.

The 75-meter (82.05-yard)-long survey vessel is equipped with sonar and other equipment capable of detecting wreckage at depths up to 6,000 feet (1,830 meters).

The EgyptAir Airbus A320 en route to Cairo from Paris had been cruising normally in clear skies on an overnight flight on May 19. The radar showed that the doomed aircraft turned 90 degrees left, then a full 360 degrees to the right, plummeting from 38,000 feet (11,582 meters) to 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) before disappearing at about 10,000 feet (3,048 meters).

Leaked flight data indicated a sensor detected smoke in a lavatory and a fault in two of the plane's cockpit windows in the final moments of the flight.

The cause of the crash still has not been determined. Ships and planes from Egypt, Greece, France, the United States and other nations have been searching the Mediterranean Sea north of the Egyptian port of Alexandria for the jet's voice and flight data recorders, as well as more bodies and parts of the aircraft.

Since the crash began, only small pieces of wreckage and human remains have been recovered in a search that has been narrowed down to five-kilometer (three-mile) area of the Mediterranean.

Egypt's civil aviation minister Sherif Fathi has said he believes terrorism is a more likely explanation than equipment failure or some other catastrophic event. But no hard evidence has emerged on the cause, and no militant group has claimed to have downed the jet.

Wednesday's announcement came nearly two weeks after the French ship Laplace detected black box signals from the missing plane.

Locator pings emitted by flight data and cockpit voice recorders can be picked up from deep underwater. The Laplace is equipped with three detectors designed to pick up those signals, which in the case of the EgyptAir plane are believed to be at a depth of some 3,000 meters (9,842 feet). By comparison, the wreckage of the Titanic is lying at a depth of some 3,800 meters (12,500 feet).

Ten days later, Egyptian investigators said that time is running out in the search for the black boxes. They said on Sunday that nearly two weeks remain before the batteries of the flight's data and cockpit voice recorders expire and they stop emitting signals.

If retrieved, the boxes could reveal whether a mechanical fault, a hijacking or a bomb caused the disaster. The voice recorder should contain a record of the last 30 minutes in the cockpit, and is equipped to detect even loud breathing. The data recorder would contain technical information on the engines, wings and cabin pressure. Investigators hope the black boxes will offer clues as to why there was no distress call.

Finding them without the signals is possible but more difficult.

Last October, a Russian airliner crashed in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula shortly after taking off from the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all 224 people on board. A local affiliate of the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for downing the aircraft just hours after the crash. In November, Russia said an explosive device brought down the aircraft.

The two disasters have unsettled authorities at the Cairo airport, where false alarms or bomb threats have caused lengthy delays to flights and at least one cancellation last week.

Security has also been considerably tightened at Egypt's 20-plus airports since the Russian plane crash, with passengers now subjected to roughly the same security measures in force at major international airports.

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