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Egyptians dismiss U.S. crash report

A headline in Egypt's top newspaper Friday demonstrated how this conservative Muslim nation is reacting to a U.S. report that an EgyptAir co-pilot intentionally sent a passenger jet plummeting into the ocean in 1999: "American authorities intentionally withheld information and did not solve the mystery of the crashed plane."

That was what readers were served up in Al Ahram, the government-owned daily, just hours after the National Transportation Safety Board announced that Egyptian co-pilot Gamil El Batouty deliberately downed the plane, killing all 217 people on board.

There was no mention here of NTSB conclusions that the plane's mechanical and control systems were in working order, or that Batouty disengaged the autopilot, or that he methodically plunged the plane into the Atlantic Ocean.

Egyptians, instead, have fixated on "the leak": Shortly after the plane went down, U.S. investigators leaked to the media their suspicion that Batouty was responsible, in part because he was heard on the voice data recorder saying "Tawakalt" (I rely on God).

Egyptians use this phrase routinely, and they immediately jumped on the U.S. allegation as the result of religious bias or cultural illiteracy. To this day, that view has framed the debate for the government-owned airline, the government leadership and the family of the accused.

"The report is nonsense, nonsense," said Mohammed Nabil El Batouty, the co-pilot's cousin. "It's a kind of evasion from liability to pay insurance. Gamil was always a competent pilot _ I mean, he wouldn't do something like this."

Coming at a time when many Egyptians are feeling misunderstood and persecuted by the West as a result of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, the case of the Egypt airliner seemed to exacerbate a sense of victimization that has gripped this nation.

From a neighborhood grocer to Egypt's top crash investigator, the U.S. findings have been dismissed out of hand, much the way many people here dismissed the videotape released by Washington that showed Osama bin Laden acknowledging advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We want the Americans to reinvestigate the case, as they have not considered several points presented by Egyptian investigators," including proper checks on the plane's tail, cockpit voice recordings and radar and flight-control data, said Mohsen El Messiri, head of Egypt's investigating committee.

EgyptAir Flight 990, bound for Cairo, took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport on Oct. 31, 1999, about 1:20 a.m. Not long afterward, the Boeing 767 plummeted 33,000 feet into the ocean. When investigators recovered the two flight data recorders, they heard what they considered to be the first evidence of wrongdoing: The plane was flying normally when Batouty said, "I rely on God" _ an invocation he could be heard saying 11 times.

Further physical evidence showed that Batouty then sent the jet into a nose dive, while the pilot of the plane, Capt. Ahmed El Habashi, struggled to save the flight.

People here say they see a pattern in the U.S. approach _ first convicting someone, then finding the evidence to prove the conviction. That's how many people here view the case against bin Laden as well.