Pride and prejudice cloud the search for crash facts

INVESTIGATORS, POLITICIANS and officials in Washington were last night trying to calm the growing row over the EgyptAir disaster.

Egyptian officials were examining the voice recorder, the transcripts from which convinced US investigators that the co-pilot deliberately put the aircraft into a steep dive. So far the Egyptians are far less certain of this, though unlike their American counterparts they have not been prepared to speculate anonymously to the press about their own theories. The truth probably lies in the fragments of wreckage spread across miles of the seabed, and it may never be clear to everybody's satisfaction.

The issue has become not just an argument about what caused EgyptAir's flight 990 from New York to Cairo to crash, but a dispute about motives and prejudice. The Egyptians believe the US is trying to protect Boeing, and that it automatically suspects Muslims of being guilty of reckless acts if not terrorism. The Americans privately believe the Egyptian government is trying to protect the national carrier.

The American theory turns on a few facts, whose interpretation is disputed. The cockpit voice recorders apparently show that the aircraft's captain, Ahmed al-Habashi, left the flight deck, leaving Gamil al-Batouti at the helm.

Batouti is reported to have said "I made my decision now," before repeating a Muslim prayer, which is variously translated as "I put my faith in God's hands," or "I depend on God." The aircraft's autopilot was then disconnected and the plane went into a steep dive. The engines were cut off, and the aircraft's two elevators were moved into different directions, so that one was pointing the plane down and one up.

Much in this is still unclear. Some leaked versions of the cockpit voice recorder do not include the comment about "I have made my decision now." Everyone agrees that Muslims use the prayer on many different occasions - when starting a car, or for something as simple as peeling potatoes.

The series of events on the data recorder and the voice recorder have had to be synchronised, which leaves some uncertainty. It is not clear who turned off the engines - some versions of the story say that it was the pilot who did this, apparently to slow the aircraft in its dive. And the significance of the elevators is unclear, although the US media have portrayed a struggle for control in the cockpit. The sensitivities of the case have led the US National Transportation Safety Board to hold back on handing the case over to the FBI, which has apparently been the source of the leaks but a decision is still expected in the next few days.

Nabil Fahmi, Egypt's new ambassador to Egypt has spent the week flitting between his embassy, the investigators and the State department. "It's a professional, cooperative effort between professionals belonging to governments who have very strong relations," he said. "Both sides want to know the truth and we're working to achieve that."

Washington, too, has sought to play down the media's theorising about the crash, though even the terms in which it has put its side have hardly been guaranteed to give the impression of evenhandedness. "We're appealing for calm, and calm can only come if there is a minimum of speculation about conclusions in this country, and a minimum of wild, exaggerated, unfounded conspiracy theories in other media in the Middle East,'' said the State Department spokesman James Rubin.

The efforts to recover the wreckage of the aircraft continue and the salvage vessel Carolyn Chouest has resumed its search. Rough weather has complicated its task, and with winter moving in , its task will not become any easier. The political turbulence, too, shows few signs of abating. And now the lawsuits have started, raising the stakes for everyone concerned with the incident.

The wreckage of TWA Flight 800, which crashed nearby three years ago, was recovered, but there is still no conclusive proof of what brought it down. The mainstream explanation is that an electrical fault caused vapour in the fuel tank to explode but theories about missiles and bombs still circulate.

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