British plane nearly downed by missile in Sinai

A British plane carrying 189 passengers came ‘within 1,000ft’ of a rocket as it approached Sharm El Sheikh, it emerged last night.

The Thomson flight from London Stansted only took evasive action after the pilot spotted the missile speeding through the air.

The jet landed safely, and holidaymakers were not told they had been seconds from disaster.

The revelation comes amid claims British jihadists had spoken about an Islamic State ‘mole’ at Sharm el-Sheikh airport minutes after a Metrojet plane crashed in Sinai, killing all 224 on board.

According to the Sun, British extremists were discussing details of the plot in online ‘chatter’ picked up by US intelligence officers.

Sources told the newspaper there was suggestion there might still be an Islamic State agent active in Sharm el-Sheikh airport.

Meanwhile, US news outlet NBC said American officials had heard leaders from the terror group boasting about the downing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt.

Citing unnamed officials, the report said ISIS chiefs in Raqqa, Syria, were heard speaking to an affiliated group in the Sinai Peninsula about taking down the plane and how it was done.

An intercepted message from the group also warned of ‘something big in the area’ before the crash.

The Department for Transport confirmed the Thomson near-miss incident took place on August 23 – just two months before the Metrojet plane crash.

A source said: ‘The first officer was in charge at the time but the pilot was in the cockpit and saw the rocket coming towards the plane.

‘He ordered that the flight turn to the left to avoid the rocket, which was about 1,000ft away.’

They said the five members of cabin crew only found out about the incident after landing.

The ‘shaken’ staff were offered the chance to stay the night in Egypt, but chose to head straight back to the UK on a flight that took off with no internal or external lights. The news came as:

  • Stranded Britons spent hours in the stifling heat of Sharm El Sheikh airport, only for rescue flights to be cancelled;
  • The Transport Secretary said the current flight ban could be extended to other countries if their airports’ security is found to be inadequate;
  • The Defence Secretary said failing to bomb Islamic State in Syria was ‘morally indefensible’, after the jihadis claimed responsibility for downing the Russian jet last Saturday; and
  • Vladimir Putin’s regime halted all flights to Egypt – barely 24 hours after criticising Britain for doing so.

The missile that nearly struck the Thomson jet was also spotted by another of the carrier’s planes as it approached Sharm El Sheikh, the source said.

‘The crew were told the rocket was from an Egyptian military exercise, but with what has happened there is a lot of fear,’ they added. ‘The incident left staff petrified.’

In July, the Foreign Office warned British tourists of a ‘high threat’ from terrorism and advised against travelling to northern Sinai.

The peninsula plays host to a range of extreme groups, including Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or Champions of Jerusalem, which emerged in 2011.

The militants, who recently declared their allegiance to Islamic State and renamed themselves Sinai Province, are thought to have access to a range of weaponry and explosives but have never targeted aircraft before. Although the Egyptian government insists the conflict is limited to small pockets, co-ordinated attacks on police and soldiers have killed hundreds as the situation threatens to spiral out of control.

Tim Williams, of security firm Stirling Assynt, has tentatively blamed Sinai Province for downing the Russian Airbus, warning that it ‘has the capability to carry out an attack of this sort’.

He suggested that the atrocity would fit ‘wholeheartedly with … its emerging agenda to target Egypt’s tourist sector in this way, and also to target Russian interests’.

He continued: ‘There are huge risks to the Egyptian government – the tourist industry is absolutely critical to their economy.

‘Sharm El Sheikh is at the centre of that, and they are very, very assertively trying to control the narrative around this, so they can try and minimise damage to their sector, and to try and ensure that they retain the support of a significant proportion of the Egyptian population, and deliver economic progress to them.’

Thomson initially declined to comment but in a comment late last night said: ‘Thomson Airways can confirm that an event was reported by the crew of flight TOM 476 on 23rd August 2015.

‘Upon landing into Sharm el-Sheikh, an initial assessment was conducted and the event was immediately reported to the UK Department for Transport (DfT) in line with established protocol.

‘The DfT conducted a full investigation in conjunction with other UK Government experts.

‘After reviewing the details of the case, the investigation concluded that there was no cause for concern and it was safe to continue our flying programme to Sharm el Sheikh.’

The altitude of its plane and its geographical position at the time it encountered the rocket has not been revealed.

A government spokesman said: ‘We investigated the reported incident at the time and concluded that it was not a targeted attack and was likely to be connected to routine exercises being conducted by the Egyptian military in the area at the time.’