Terrorists bombed a St. Petersburg-bound airliner – killing all 224 on board including more than a dozen children – President Vladimir Putin confirmed Tuesday and ordered a major escalation in Moscow's air attacks against militant rebel groups in Syria.
Vowing massive retribution against those who downed the Russian jet, Mr. Putin said: "We will find them anywhere on the planet." Two months ago, the Russian leader sent warplanes to attack rebel groups seeking to topple Moscow's embattled ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Islamic State said it destroyed the charter jet packed with vacationers – the majority of whom were Russian – in retaliation.
The downing of the Metrojet Airbus A321, which had its tail blown off by a bomb barely 23 minutes after a dawn takeoff from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, marked the first of a recent series of strikes by Islamist jihadis that has bloodied large numbers of foreigners in Ankara, Beirut and Paris in the last month.
In Egypt, the beleaguered government continued to insist it had no hard evidence that militants had secreted a bomb on board the Russian flight but security officials said more than a dozen suspects had been detained at Sharm el-Sheikh. Airport video surveillance footage showed a baggage handler carrying a case from an airport building and giving it to another who was loading luggage into the doomed airliner, a security official told Reuters.
"We can unequivocally say it was a terrorist act," said Alexander Bortnikov, head of Russia's Federal Security Bureau. "A homemade bomb containing up to one kilogram of TNT" was put on board, he said, adding that explosive traces had been recovered from wreckage and bodies.
Moscow offered a $50-million (U.S.) reward for information leading to the identification and capture of the bombers.
An Islamic militant group operating in the Sinai Peninsula and linked to Islamic State had quickly claimed responsibility shortly after the Metrojet went down on Oct. 31. Days later, U.S. and British intelligence agencies said signal intercepts implicated Islamic jihadis.
In blowing up the airliner, the Islamic State, the ruthless Sunni group that has carved a nascent caliphate out of western Iraq and parts of Syria, has dramatically extended its violent reach. Jihadists loyal to the Islamic State have attacked Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shia group in Lebanon, staged multiple co-ordinated attacks in Paris, bombed the Turkish capital and destroyed the St. Petersburg-bound airliner in the last month.
In retaliation, Russia, France, Turkey and the United States have all stepped up air strikes against targets in Syria, although the overlapping air wars lack an agreed common objective.
On Tuesday, Russian warplanes launched long-range cruise missiles against targets in Syria while strike fighters attacked other rebel sites and Mr. Putin ordered the cruiser Moskva to co-ordinate operations in the eastern Mediterranean with a French naval group led by the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.
The attack on the Russian Metrojet makes it the third-most deadly terrorist toll caused by bombs secreted on board airliners. The worst remains the Air-India Boeing 747 flight from Montreal to London that was blown up off Ireland in 1985, killing all 329 on board, most of them Canadians, by Sikh extremists operating in British Columbia. Four years later, a Pan Am Boeing 747 was blown up over Lockerbie Scotland, killing 270 people, by Libyan operatives who put a bomb in luggage.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackings of four U.S. airliners by al-Qaeda terrorists who used them as fuel-laden missiles to destroy New York's twin towers and damage the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people, terrorists have been repeatedly thwarted in attempts to put bombs on aircraft.
Other civilian airliners have been destroyed in acts widely regarded as terrorism. In 2014, a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was shot down by a BUK surface-to-air missile fired from Russian-backed rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 on board.