Egyptian investigators said Monday they have not found “any evidence” indicating that an "illegal or terrorist act" brought down a Russian passenger plane traveling from a resort in the Sinai Peninsula on Oct. 31, in a statement released by Egypt's chief investigator.
Russia, initially hesitant to cite terrorism in the days following the crash that killed all 224 onboard the Airbus A321-200, concluded on Nov. 17 that a bomb containing up to 2.2 pounds of TNT explosive had been placed on the flight. The US and British governments have also said the crash was likely the result of a terrorist attack.
In early November, a source close to the investigation told France 2 that the sound of an explosion could be heard on the Metrojet black box recorder. Unnamed officials meanwhile told Le Point that “exterior action” was the only explanation for the crash. CNN quoted a US intelligence official saying it was "99.9 percent certain" a bomb brought the plane down, and another US source said it was "likely."
The Islamic State group (also known as ISIS) took responsibility for the crash within hours of the plane going down in the Sinai Peninsula where Islamic insurgents have been active for the last two years.
But Egypt isn't buying it.
"The technical investigative committee has so far not found any evidence indicating criminal or terrorist activity in the downing of the plane," chief investigator Ayman El-Muqqadam said, according to Ahram Online, an English-language edition of Egypt’s largest news organization. Mr. El-Muqqadam indicated the report is initial, and that the investigation is ongoing.
El-Muqadam said the investigation committee visited the crash site 15 times, and the Egyptian air force was working with investigators to relocate the wreckage to Cairo for continued examination. Investigators looked at the plane's 38 computers and two engine computers, and is now turning its attention to the technical aspects of the aircraft and its repair history since it began operating in May 1997, The Associated Press reports.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment directly on the Egyptian statement, but told reporters in a conference call, "I can remind you of the conclusion of our experts from the special services, who came to the conclusion that it was a terrorist action."
Experts from Egypt, Russia, France and Ireland have taken part in a technical investigation, and Egyptian security officials have said the investigation has extended into a possible security breach or militant infiltration of the Sharm el-Sheikh airport staff, according to the AP.
That side of the investigation has looked at airport staff: baggage handlers, their security supervisors and also personnel involved in aircraft catering, according to the officials.
But Egypt has consistently dismissed statements from Russia and Western governments that suggest terrorism, saying that only an official probe can definitively draw a conclusion. But it's not clear that denying a terrorist connection is helping it's flagging tourism industry.
The Egyptian tourism ministry estimates 2.2 billion Egyptian pounds ($280 million) in tourism revenue were lost within a month of the crash, which resulted in cancelled flights from Russia and Britain.
Two-thirds of tourists to Sharm el-Sheikh, the resort town on the Red Sea where the flight originated, come from Britain and Russia. The destination accounts for about a third of Egypt's annual tourism revenue, the BBC reports.
According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, the industry accounted for almost 13 percent of the country's gross domestic product in 2014. Travel and tourism also provided nearly 12 percent of Egyptian jobs last year. That's significant for a country with a total unemployment rate of over 12 percent, CNBC reports.
H.A. Hellyer, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London, said in an earlier interview with CNBC that the airliner tragedy will hit Egyptian tourism "pretty hard."
"It's not simply the downing of the airliner, which was bad enough, but the reaction of the international community in suspending flights; press revelations about security procedures in the airports," among other issues, he told CNBC in an e-mail. "Cairo's reputation is taking a beating; it can bounce back, but it would have to engage pretty heavily on these issues."