Shock, denial at Russia airport after plane crashes in Egypt

Saint Petersburg (AFP) - Irina Semyonova said her friend Natasha last called her from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to say she'd bought her a present of perfume from the airport's duty-free shop.

"She was vacationing there with a friend," Semyonova said blankly, showing a picture on her phone of a smiling swimsuit-clad young woman, her blonde hair in a long plait.

Semyonova was one of a crowd of people gathered in Pulkovo airport in Saint Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city, who were left reeling after news broke that the plane they had been waiting for had crashed shortly after takeoff in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

Like many Russians, Semyonova's friend had gone on holiday to one of Egypt's Red Sea resorts which are especially popular during the winter when people try and escape the long months of cold and dark in search of warmer climes.

Many of those who came to pick up friends or relatives were in denial as reports trickled in about the fate of the 224 people on board the Airbus 321 operated by the Russian carrier Kogalymavia.

Airport officials tried to keep things calm with a tannoy announcement asking all those waiting to meet those on board the ill-fated Sharm el-Sheikh flight to "come to the information stand."

They were then ushered onto buses and taken to a hotel where psychologists and doctors were waiting at an impromptu crisis centre which has already asked family members to provide DNA samples for identifying remains.

"My wife was on that plane," said Nail, a grief-stricken 60-year-old with tears in his eyes. "She was on vacation with our children but thank God, the children had come back two days earlier.

"I had a bad dream today, she was in it," he said. "At 6:00 am she sent me a text message that she was going to the airport, and that was it."

- 'I'll keep hoping' -

Confusion and fear also gripped passengers who had been due to fly out to Egypt on holiday as their plane, operated by Kogalymavia but chartered by a Moscow-based tour operator Brisco, failed to show up.

"Nobody came out to talk to us yet, we don't know what plane we'll be on," a passenger called Anzhelika told the Rossiya-24 channel.

"If it's Kogalymavia, we don't want to fly," she said.

After not answering its phones for much of the day, Metrojet broke its silence with a statement offering condolences to the families of the victims.

It named the pilot as Nemov Valery and said he had "more than 12,000 hours" of flight experience, "including 3,860 hours with Airbus A321".

Metrojet said it had opened a phone line to answer the relatives' questions. "We will all need great courage to overcome these losses," it added.

Russian investigators searched the company's offices and those of the tour operator and took samples of the kerosene used by the airline, the country's powerful Investigative Committee said. But Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said it was too early to speak of safety violations.

Russia has a dismal air safety record, with charter flights often under pressure to book to capacity on ageing jets in a bid to cut costs. Kogalymavia is a small regional carrier which flies mostly international charter services.

Regional airlines in Russia are especially notorious and the crash is likely to raise renewed concerns about the safety of air travel in a country where experts have long sounded the alarm over the nation's ageing fleet of passenger jets.

Two years ago, Russian lawmakers called for a ban on planes built more than 20 years ago after a 23-year-old Boeing 737 operated by a regional airline crashed, killing all 50 people on board.

Russia has already announced a probe into possible safety violations in Saturday's crash and a high-level delegation of rescue workers and investigators, including two ministers, was set to travel to the crash site.

The Kremlin declared a day of national mourning for Sunday.

"I am meeting my parents," said 25-year-old Ella Smirnova, a tall young woman with a shock-induced smile on her face, waiting by Pulkovo's information stand.

"I spoke to them last on the phone when they were already on the plane, and then I heard the news."

"I will keep hoping until the end that they are alive, but perhaps I will never see them again," she told AFP.

Shortly afterwards, the Russian embassy in Egypt issued a statement saying there were no survivors.

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