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Egypt's Investigation Into Russian Airliner Crash Shrouded In Secrecy

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We start this hour with two different versions of what brought down a Russian plane over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula 11 days ago. Officials in the U.S. and the UK say evidence points to a bomb.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Egypt hasn't uttered the word bomb or even acknowledged a security problem, but officials are clamping down on bad publicity. NPR's Leila Fadel reports it highlights the opaque nature of the country's military-backed government and raises concerns that Egypt may try to conceal what happened.

KHALED FOUDA: Hello, how are you doing?

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: I meet the governor of South Sinai, Khaled Fouda, is his Sharm el-Sheikh office.

FOUDA: (Through interpreter) I would like to assure you and assure all the American citizens that the security situation here is stable. The airport is secure, and the city is secure.

FADEL: Fouda insists there's no problem here.

How do you respond though to governments who say Egypt is not being transparent, they're not being open, they know more than they're saying?

FOUDA: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: "It's the opposite," he says. "Western governments are the ones not being transparent." The governor says security delegations from Germany, Russia, Britain and Italy have come to Sharm el-Sheikh. But Western officials have raised questions about airport security and whether a bomb could have gotten on the plane.

One of the things some of the lawmakers in America were saying that it may have gotten on the plane because somebody at the airport helped.

FOUDA: No. Who - you have information? Just tell us. These countries must help us.

FADEL: Switching to English, Fouda says the Egyptians have seen none of the intelligence that the U.S. is referring to. Airport staff are being investigated, and so far, there's no evidence of an inside job. Egypt has said very little about the cause of the Russian plane breaking apart in the sky. The news of a bomb on the plane would hurt the tourism industry and poke holes into claims that the government has full control in the restive Sinai Peninsula. On the streets of this resort area, Egypt seems more focused on controlling the bad publicity. The main tourist strip in Sharm el-Sheikh is lit up with neon lights and music fills the air - plainclothes police abound. Many journalists interviewing people are stopped and questioned. For a brief time, the government gave journalists access to the airport, but now they're blocking them from working there. I tried to talk to tourists at the entrance of the departures hall.

Are you guys getting out?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We're on standby at the moment.

FADEL: OK, are you delayed or are you just going...

An Egyptian man comes and tells them to go inside and then gives them instructions on how to answer questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If anybody comes, just say that there is no problem here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Of course.

FADEL: Please say there is no problem here, he says. Egypt analyst Michael Hanna of the New York-based Century Foundation think tank says it's typical behavior in a state that views the international press as conspiratorial. And, he says, Egypt has a track record for investigations that lead nowhere and hold no one accountable.

MICHAEL HANNA: Most recently, we had the killing of Mexican tourists in the Western Desert. And, of course, there was an official investigation launched into this accidental killing by the Egyptian military, and very little has come out of that.

FADEL: This was a case in September where a Mexican tour group and their guides were picnicking in the desert when 12 of them were killed by military airstrikes. The government blamed the tourists saying they were in the wrong location, even though they had permission and a police escort. And the Russian plane crash reminds people of an EgyptAir flight from New York that crashed into the ocean in 1999. Investigators widely believe it was the result of pilot suicide. The U.S. officially said it was the pilot's fault, but Egypt never acknowledged that. That's why, Hanna says, Western governments are making statements about the crash and leaking information. This time, he says, it will be more difficult for Egypt to just shrug it off.

HANNA: The difference now is that Egypt's tourist economy is at stake.

FADEL: Hanna says tourism won't bounce back unless there's a credible investigation. But back at the governor's office, his aide Abdel Fattah Helmy says some things might just remain mysterious. He compares it to the Kennedy assassination.

ABDEL FATTAH HELMY: President John Kennedy is killed in the United States. Who is killing him? Nobody knows until now.

FADEL: And if that's still unknown, he says, how can Americans know everything about this airplane? Leila Fadel, NPR News, Sharm el-Sheikh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.