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EgyptAir crash probe logjam frustrates French investigators

French investigators have openly criticised the Egyptian probe into the fatal loss of an EgyptAir Airbus A320 two years ago, after the inquiry was turned over to judicial authorities.

The A320, operating a service from Paris to Cairo on 19 May 2016, departed from its cruise altitude of 37,000ft and came down in the Mediterranean Sea.

Evidence from debris, the cockpit-voice recorder, and avionics systems on the jet back up the “most likely” theory that a rapidly-developing cockpit fire led to the accident, says French investigation authority BEA.

But the Egyptian probe declared, seven months after the crash, that it had discovered traces of explosives on human remains. This led the inquiry to pursue instead the possibility that sabotage brought down the aircraft, and required investigators to transfer jurisdiction entirely to the Egyptian criminal and legal authorities – to the detriment, the BEA claims, of the fire probe.

“[Our] proposals concerning further work on the debris and recorded data were not, as far as the BEA knows, followed up,” says the French agency.

“The technical elements of the investigation already collected by Egypt, including those provided by the BEA, are protected by the Egyptian judicial investigation.”

The BEA has pressed for the safety investigation to be maintained, and it met with the Egyptian attorney general in May.

But the Egyptian side appears to have reiterated its legal position regarding responsibility for the inquiry, and the BEA has responded critically to the apparent inflexibility, particularly regarding consideration of other hypotheses.

It says Egyptian investigators have not published a final report which would have allowed the BEA to lay down its “differences of opinion”, as permitted by air accident investigation procedures.

“The BEA considers that the most likely hypothesis is the rapid spread of a fire and would like investigations into this hypothesis to be continued in the interests of aviation safety,” it adds.

Production of the final report, says the BEA, is “necessary” to understand the cause of the accident and to develop measures or safety proposals aimed at prevention.

Egyptian judicial authorities remain in charge of the inquiry. Should Egyptian investigators opt to restart the safety probe, the BEA says it will be “ready to continue” collaborating with their efforts.

Investigation agencies have previously clashed with Egyptian authorities over the cause of high-profile air accidents.

Egypt’s civil aviation ministry focused on technical problems in the inquiry into a Flash Airlines Boeing 737-300 crash at Sharm el-Sheikh in January 2004, while the US National Transportation Safety Board and the BEA each stressed that evidence pointed to spatial disorientation from the crew.

NTSB investigators also disputed suggestions that technical failures brought down an EgyptAir Boeing 767-300ER off the US east coast in October 1999, when evidence pointed to deliberate actions by the aircraft’s first officer.

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