By Pyotr Kovalyov
ST PETERSBURG (Reuters) - The first bodies from a plane crash in Egypt in which all 224 passengers, most of them Russians, died over the weekend arrived in St Petersburg early on Monday morning aboard a Russian government plane.
The crashed Airbus A321 plane, operated by Russian airline Kogalymavia, was carrying holidaymakers from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to St Petersburg when it crashed in the Sinai Peninsula on Saturday morning.
Russian officials have said the plane likely broke up in mid-air but have stressed that it is too early to draw conclusions from this. President Vladimir Putin declared Sunday a national day of mourning.
Russian news agencies reported that a first Il-76 Emergency Situations Ministry plane flew into St Petersburg's Pulkovo Airport a little before 6 a.m. local time, carrying 144 bodies.
The ministry said the next plane carrying bodies would leave Cairo on Monday evening for St Petersburg. On arrival, the first bodies were loaded onto stretchers and carried into a large white lorry waiting on the runway at Pulkovo Airport.
A Reuters photographer then saw the white lorry leaving the airport, escorted by police cars. It was heading for a St Petersburg morgue, where the bodies were to be identified.
The identification process was meant to start around 11 a.m. local time.
At Pulkovo Airport on Sunday, grieving Russians piled flowers high in memory of their dead compatriots. Mourners in Moscow arranged candles to spell out 7K-9268, the number of the flight that crashed.
Russia and other former Soviet republics have poor air safety records, notably on domestic flights. Some accidents have been blamed on the use of aging aircraft, but industry experts point to other problems, such as poor crew training and lax government controls.
St Petersburg authorities have decided that official mourning events will last until Tuesday in Russia's second city.
(Writing by Alexander Winning; Editing by Christian Lowe)