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CAIRO (AP) — A Russian aircraft carrying more than 220 people crashed Saturday in a remote mountainous region in the Sinai Peninsula more than 20 minutes after takeoff from a Red Sea resort popular with Russian tourists, Egypt's Ministry of Civil Aviation said.
It is not immediately known whether there are any survivors among the 217 passengers and seven crew members but an Egyptian government spokesman said 50 ambulances were headed to the crash site to offer medical care if needed.
Adel Mahgoub, chairman of the state company that runs Egypt's civilian airports, said all passengers and crew were Russian citizens.
A ministry statement said Egyptian military search and rescue teams found the wreckage of the passenger jet in the Hassana area south of the city of el-Arish, an area in northern Sinai where Egyptian security forces are fighting a burgeoning Islamic militant insurgency led by a local affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group.
It said the plane, believed to be an Airbus model, took off from Sharm el-Sheikh shortly before 6 a.m. for St. Petersburg in Russia and disappeared from radar screens 23 minutes after takeoff. The reported time lapse between takeoff and loss of contact with the aircraft means that the plane was possibly flying at a cruising altitude of some 30,000 feet when it crashed.
Militants in northern Sinai have not to date shot down commercial airliners or fighter-jets. There have been persistent media reports that they have acquired Russian shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles. But these types of missiles can only be effective against low-flying aircraft or helicopters. In January 2014, Sinai-based militants claimed to have shot down a military helicopter; Egyptian officials at the time acknowledged the helicopter had crashed, but gave no reason.
Civil Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal said an investigative team has arrived at the crash site to examine the debris and locate the flight's recorders, or the "black box."
Separately, Russia's Investigative Committee, the country's top investigative body, has opened an investigation into the crash, according to a statement issued Saturday by committee spokesman Sergei Markin.
Earlier in the day, an Egyptian official with the government's Aviation Incidents Committee told local media that the plane had briefly lost contact but was now safely in Turkish airspace.
Later, the same official, Ayman al-Muqadem, said the plane has crashed and that the pilot, before losing contact, had radioed that the aircraft was experiencing technical problems and that he intended to try and land at the nearest airport. The aircraft crashed at a site near the el-Arish airport, he said.
It was not immediately possible to independently confirm that technical problems caused the plane to crash.
Mahgoub said the aircraft had successfully undergone technical checks while at Sharm el-Sheikh's airport. A technical committee from the company was headed to Sharm el-Sheikh to collect security camera footage of the plane while it sat at the airport, including operations to supply it with fuel and passenger meals as well security checks, he said.
Roughly three million Russian tourists, or nearly a third of all visitors in 2014, come to Egypt every year, mostly to Red Sea resorts in Sinai or in mainland Egypt.
"It is too premature to detect the impact this will have on tourism. We need to know what happened first," Tourism Ministry spokeswoman Rasha Azazi told The Associated Press.
Associated Press writers Nour Youssef in Cairo and James Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report