CAIRO (AP) — An EgyptAir flight from Paris to Cairo with 66 passengers and crew on board crashed into the Mediterranean Sea off the Greek island of Crete early Thursday morning, Egyptian and Greek officials said. Egypt's aviation minister said the crash was more likely caused by a terror attack than technical problems.
There were no immediate signs of any survivors but regardless of what caused the crash, the incident is likely to deepen Egypt's woes as the country struggles to revive its ailing economy, particularly the lucrative tourism sector that has been battered by the turmoil in which the country has been mired since a 2011 popular uprising.
The crash also renewed security concerns surrounding Egyptian planes and airports, and brought back still fresh memories of the horrific Russian passenger plane crash in Sinai last October, when all 224 people on board were killed. Moscow has said the aircraft was brought down by an explosive device, and a local branch of the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for planting it.
Later in the day, an Egyptian search plane located two orange items believed to be from the EgyptAir flight, 230 miles southeast of Crete within the Egyptian area of Flight Information Region, a Greek military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under regulations.
In Cairo, Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathi told a news conference that he did not want to prematurely draw conclusions, but that indications suggest a terror attack as more likely cause of the crash.
"The possibility of having a different action or a terror attack, is higher than the possibility of having a technical failure," Fathi said, cautioning the truth would not be known before the investigation is concluded.
Earlier, Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail also said a terror attack could not be ruled out. "We cannot rule anything out," Ismail told reporters at Cairo airport.
Greek defense minister Panos Kammenos said the EgyptAir flight 804 made abrupt turns and suddenly lost altitude just before vanishing from radar at around 2.45 a.m. Egyptian time.
He said the aircraft was 10-15 miles inside the Egyptian FIR, Flight Information Region, and at an altitude of 37,000 feet. "It turned 90 degrees left and then a 360 degree turn toward the right, dropping from 38,000 to 15,000 feet and then it was lost at about 10,000 feet," Kammenos added.
EgyptAir said the Airbus A320 vanished 10 miles (16 kilometers) after it entered Egyptian airspace, around 280 kilometers (175 miles) off Egypt's coastline north of the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. The carrier's account fits closely with an account from Konstantinos Lintzerakos, director of Greece's Civil Aviation Authority.
The airline said the Egyptian military had received an emergency signal from the aircraft, an apparent reference to an Emergency Locator Transmitter, a battery powered device designed to automatically give out a signal in the event of a sudden loss of altitude or impact.
The Egyptian military denied it had received a distress call and Egypt's state-run daily Al-Ahram quoted an unidentified airport official as saying the pilot did not send one. The absence of a distress call suggests that whatever sent the aircraft plummeting into the Mediterranean was both sudden and brief.
Exploring the possibility of a terror attack, Egyptian security officials said they were running background checks on the passengers to see if any of them had links to extremists. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
In Paris, the city's prosecutor's office has opened an investigation into the incident. "No hypothesis is favored or ruled out at this stage," the prosecutor's office said in a statement. Egypt's chief prosecutor, Nabil Sadeq, followed suit, ordering an "urgent" investigation into the crash.
The head of Greece's air traffic controllers association, Serafeim Petrou, told The Associated Press that everything was operating normally prior to the plane's disappearance from radar.
Egyptian military aircraft and navy ships were taking part in a search operation off Egypt's Mediterranean coast to locate the debris of the plane, which was carrying 56 passengers, including one child and two babies, and 10 crew members. The pilot had more than 6,000 flight hours.
Greece also joined the search and rescue operation, officials at the Hellenic National Defense General Staff said.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault offered to send military planes and boats to join the Egyptian search for wreckage.
"We are at the disposition of the Egyptian authorities with our military capacities, with our planes, our boats to help in the search for this plane," he said. He spoke after French President Francois Hollande held an emergency meeting at the Elysee Palace.
Later, the French military said a Falcon surveillance jet monitoring the Mediterranean for migrants had been diverted to help search for the EgyptAir plane. Military spokesman Col. Gilles Jaron told The Associated Press that the jet is joining the Egypt-led search effort, and the French navy may send another plane and a ship to the zone.
Hollande spoke with Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on the phone and agreed to "closely cooperate to establish as soon as possible the circumstances" surrounding the incident, according to a statement issued in Paris.
In Cairo, el-Sissi convened an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, the country's highest security body. The council includes the prime minister and the defense, foreign and interior ministers, in addition to the chiefs of the intelligence agencies.
Those on board, according to EgyptAir, included 15 French passengers, 30 Egyptians, two Iraqis, one Briton, one Kuwaiti, one Saudi, one Sudanese, one Chadian, one Portuguese, one Belgian, one Algerian and one Canadian. Ayrault confirmed that 15 French citizens were on board.
Around 15 relatives of passengers on board the missing flight arrived at Cairo airport Thursday morning. Airport authorities brought doctors to the scene after several distressed family members collapsed.
In Paris, relatives of passengers on the EgyptAir flight started arriving at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside the French capital.
A man and a woman, identified by airport staff as relatives of the flight's passengers, sat at an information desk near the EgyptAir counter at Charles de Gaulle Airport's Terminal 1. The woman was sobbing, holding her face in a handkerchief. The pair were led away by police and airport staff and did not speak to gathered journalists.
The Airbus A320 is a widely used twin-engine, single-aisle plane that operates on short and medium-haul routes. Nearly 4,000 A320s are currently in use around the world. The ubiquity of the A320 means the plane has been involved in several accidents over the years. The last deadly crash involving the plane was Germanwings Flight 9525, in which all 150 onboard died when one of the pilots intentionally crashed it in the French Alps.
Airbus said the aircraft was delivered to EgyptAir in 2003 and had logged 48,000 flight hours before it "was lost" over the Mediterranean. The European plane-maker said in a statement Thursday that it had engines made by Swiss-based engine consortium IAE, and had the serial number 2088.
An EgyptAir plane was hijacked and diverted to Cyprus in March. A man who admitted to the hijacking and is described by Cypriot authorities as "psychologically unstable" is in custody in Cyprus.
In 1999, EgyptAir Flight 990 crashed into the Atlantic near the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, killing all 217 people aboard. U.S. investigators filed a final report that concluded its co-pilot switched off the autopilot and pointed the Boeing 767 downward. Egyptian officials rejected the notion of suicide altogether, insisting some mechanical reason caused the crash.
Becatoros reported from Athens and Charlton from Paris. Associated Press Writers Raphael Satter, Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Hamza Hendawi in Cairo contributed to this report.