Russian transportation officials said flight recorders recovered from the Russian jetliner that crashed Saturday in Egypt with 224 people on board have sustained only "minor" damage and have undergone a preliminary inspection.
In a statement Monday, the Air Transportation Ministry said further decisions on downloading and analyzing information from the recorders would be resolved "shortly."
The ministry statement came shortly after the charter airline company Metrojet cited "external" reasons for the crash, after ruling out technical failure or human error.
Metrojet did not offer evidence to back its assertions, and the air ministry later called the carrier's comments "premature and not based on any real facts."
The Metrojet flight carrying mostly Russian vacationers from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula to St. Petersburg fell from the sky before dawn on Saturday, about 20 minutes after departing the airport at the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Three Ukrainians were among the fatalities. There were no survivors.
Russian officials and airline representatives have refused to speculate on what caused the crash, the worst in Russian aviation.
"There are no technical failures that could lead to the plane breaking up in the air," as it did, Aleksander Smirnov, the airline’s deputy director for aviation, said at a packed news conference in Moscow.
Andrei Averyanov, Metrojet’s deputy director of technical operations, rejected suggestions that a 2001 repair to the plane's tail could have caused the disaster, despite similar disasters caused by faulty repairs to older planes.
"The plane wasn't flying, it was falling," Smirnov said. "The crew totally lost control and for that reason there was not one attempt to get in contact and report on the accident situation onboard."
Smirnov said the Metrojet charter flight "received significant damage to its construction that did not allow it to continue the flight."
He said the only way to explain the crash is "some kind of external action. ... We rule out technical faultiness of the plane, we exclude a mistake by the pilot or the crew, the so-called human factor."
When asked if terrorism was possible, Smirnov did not dismiss the possibility but called for everyone to wait for investigators’ findings.
When asked earlier about the possibility of the incident being a terrorist attack, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said no theory could yet be ruled out.
Meanwhile, Alexander Neradko, the head of Russia's Federal Air Transport Agency, told Rossiya 24 state television it was premature for the company to say technical or human error was not to blame.
Neradko agreed with the airline's assessment that the plane broke up about 23 minutes after takeoff and plunged out of the sky at high speed.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said U.S. investigators had offered to help probe the disaster, but he did not say whether that offer had been accepted by Moscow.
Although no Americans are believed to have been killed in the crash, Earnest said, "we obviously have an interest in helping Egyptian and Russian authorities get to the bottom of what exactly happened."
No evidence of terrorism
Cairo and Moscow have played down the claim from Egypt's Islamic State (IS) branch that it shot down the plane.
James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence, said Monday, "We don't have any direct evidence of any terrorist involvement yet" in the crash. But he noted that the IS group, which has claimed responsibility, has a significant presence in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.
Asked if IS extremists had the capabilities to bring down a passenger jet, Clapper said, "It's unlikely, but I wouldn't rule it out."
After visiting the crash site, Viktor Sorochenko, a Russian member of the investigation team, said fragments of the Airbus A321 "are strewn over a large area," according to RIA-Novosti news agency in Cairo.
Several airlines, including Air France, Lufthansa, Dubai-based Emirates and Qatar Airways, have said they will stop flying over the Sinai Peninsula for safety reasons.
Militants claiming IS affiliation said they downed the jet. But aviation and military experts believe the group does not have missiles that could have reached the plane's altitude of 9,100 meters.
Earlier Monday, the first bodies of victims of the Russian airplane crash arrived at St. Petersburg's Pulkovo Airport aboard a Russian government plane.
St. Petersburg authorities have decided mourning activities there for those killed in the crash will last until Tuesday. Putin had declared Sunday a national day of mourning.
Egyptian Civil Aviation chief Hossam Kamal said safety checks before the flight did not turn up any problems, and he said the pilot did not issue a distress call before the plane disappeared.
VOA's Daniel Schearf contributed to this report from Moscow. Some information is from Reuters, AP and AFP.
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