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Tuesday, November 16, 1999 Published at 13:54 GMT

World: Americas

EgyptAir: Criminal probe possible

NTSB chairman Jim Hall did not give much away during his press conference

US government officials investigating the crash of EgyptAir flight 990 are deciding whether to hand over the inquiry to the FBI, raising the prospect that the plane was brought down by a criminal act.

The loss of flight 990
The US National Transportation Safety Board chairman, Jim Hall, said his team was concentrating its efforts on determining whether it should stay on the case.

The US television network CNN reported that the FBI had now decided to take on the case. However, an FBI official told the BBC that, as of now, no such decision had been taken, and reports that the FBI was about to announce its own investigation were not true.

The BBC's Tom Carver reports: "One of the pilots made a short prayer before turning off the autopilot"
After an initial review of the cockpit recording, government sources have revealed that a crew member is apparently heard making a religious statement - possibly a prayer - about going into death.

A BBC correspondent in Washington says investigators are refusing even to confirm that these conversations took place.

They want to listen more carefully to the tape, which has been difficult to decipher because the conversations are in Arabic.

If there is evidence of criminal activity, the FBI would take over the investigation into the 31 October crash in which 217 people died.

'Pull with me, pull with me'

The BBC's Nick Bryant reports from Washington
The tape reportedly indicates that the pilot had left the cockpit, returning shortly afterwards and asking "What is going on?"

Taking back the controls, the pilot is said to have issued the order: "Pull with me, pull with me." Experts say this is a command that would normally be given to bring an aircraft out of a steep dive.

Click here to see a graphic showing the last seconds of the EgyptAir flight

"We are concentrating our efforts on determining from the evidence, including the cockpit voice recorder, whether or not this investigation is to remain under the leadership of the National Transportation Safety Board," Mr Hall told a news conference.

The NTSB is responsible for investigating accidents but law enforcement agencies take over if a crime is suspected.

BBC Washington correspondent Richard Lister: "Hall refused to elaborate on his statement"
"I assure you that the National Transportation Safety Board, as well as the many other agencies of the United States government, and the government of Egypt are committed to an early resolution of this matter," Mr Hall said.

The authorities have been able to examine Flight 990's voice recorder, but no conclusions have been officially drawn from it.

Suicide, fighting in the cockpit, or an attempted hijacking are unlikely to have caused the airliner's plunge into the Atlantic off the coast of Massachusetts, reports say.

[ image: The voice recorder  might still hold clues]
The voice recorder might still hold clues
The pilots reportedly "talked like pals" as they attempted to repair a problem in the cockpit after an alarm sounded, the NTSB chairman said on Sunday.

The tape, recovered from the seabed on Saturday, was in "good condition" and contained about 31.5 minutes of data, but that "no conclusions could be drawn from their initial reviews", Mr Hall said.

Puzzling questions

The BBC's Richard Lister: "The investigators will enhance and analyse every sound on the tape"
The flight's recorder tape is at the National Transportation Safety Board headquarters in Washington after being retrieved by the US Navy from the plane's wreckage, about 100km off the Massachusetts island of Nantucket.

A key task will be to correlate the timings between the flight recorder, retrieved last Tuesday, and the cockpit voice recorder.

[ image: Co-pilot Adel Anwar chatted with the pilot]
Co-pilot Adel Anwar chatted with the pilot
Mr Hall said: "We're certainly hopeful that within the next two or three days we'll be able to answer a lot of the puzzling questions that information on the flight data recorder has raised in our minds."

Crash investigators hope the recorded cockpit conversations will reveal whether the plane's automatic pilot and engines were deliberately turned off.

Information gleaned from the flight data recorder indicates both engines cut off eight seconds after the autopilot disconnected.

But Boeing says the engines could only be turned off intentionally.

A group of NTSB investigators will go to Boeing headquarters in Seattle on Tuesday with the information already gathered from the flight data recorder. They plan to re-enact Flight 990's final moments by entering the information into a flight simulator.

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