Investigators were last night desperately seeking evidence to explain why an airliner plunged into the Red Sea, killing all 148 on board, just minutes after taking off from the Egyptian resort where Tony Blair is holidaying.
Terrorism has not been ruled out as the cause of yesterday's crash of a Paris-bound charter flight just after it took off from Sharm el Sheikh. However, Egyptian and French air accident investigators suggested that the Boeing 737-300 had developed a technical problem shortly after taking off.
The French deputy transport minister, Dominique Bussereau, said the Flash Airlines flight, carrying tourists from a Christmas and New Year break at hotels on the Red Sea coast, suffered a "problem at take-off". "It tried to turn back and it was when trying to do so that it crashed," he said. Eyewitnesses said the plane was flying low over the water. It was intact as it hit the sea at a shallow angle and broke up on impact.
The crash, which has plunged France into mourning, follows a week of heightened security in global aviation prompted by a US alert of an imminent attack by al-Qa'ida. Flights to the US from Britain, France and Latin America were cancelled, turned back or held for hours on arrival. At least one BA flight was escorted through US airspace by jet fighters.
Last night BA flight 223 from Heathrow to Washington, which had previously been cancelled two days running, finally took off. Nevertheless, after being cleared for takeoff it was held on the runway for three hours in an unexplained alert. Following a separate terror warning, all BA flights from the UK to Riyadh were cancelled this weekend.
The victims of the Egyptian crash included 127 French tourists, among them scores of children, as well as eight other holiday-makers resident in France and 13 crew members. The Prime Minister, who is due to leave the resort he has been staying in with his family for a week today, had no known connection to the flight.
The Bush administration was last night forced to defend its decision to cancel more than a dozen international flights as evidence emerged it has angered a number of allies, including Britain.
British Airways flights to Washington and Riyadh have been cancelled this week following what the US claims is "specific intelligence" of a planned terrorist outrage using a passenger plane. The White House also announced last week that foreign carriers flying to the US must deploy armed "sky marshals", and grounded some flights from France and Mexico.
British ministers are privately furious at the failure of the US to consult them over the measures. "The notion that the US can bounce the rest of the world every time they get into a hole needs addressing," one minister said last night.
David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, relayed his concerns in a phone call to Tom Ridge, the head of the US Department of Homeland Security, on Friday.
He is pressing for a meeting next week of the high-level US-British contact group intended to oversee transatlantic co-operation against terrorism to review procedures. The group, which includes intelligence officials from both countries, was not due to meet again until May.
Asa Hutchinson, deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, defended its actions against charges of overkill.
Doubts over the quality of the intelligence multiplied as it emerged that three passengers targeted by US law enforcement agencies on Air France flights to Los Angeles turned out to be a child, an elderly Chinese woman and a Welsh insurance agent.