Libya passenger jet hijacked, diverted to Malta
Aircraft with 118 people on board hijacked by men claiming to have hand grenades who threatened to blow it up.
The Airbus A320 was flying from Sebha in southwest Libya to the capital, Tripoli [Reuters]
A Libyan aircraft with 118 people on board has been hijacked and diverted to Malta by two men claiming to have hand grenades who threatened to blow up the aircraft unless their demands were met.
One of the hijackers told the flight crew of the Afriqiyah Airways plane that he was “pro-Gaddafi” and he was willing to let all 111 passengers leave the Airbus A320 – but not its seven crew – if he is given what he asks for, the Times of Malta reported.
Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed in an uprising in 2011, and the country has been racked by factional violence since.
It was unclear what the demands were.
At about 1300GMT, women could be seen disembarking from the aircraft. Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tweeted the 25 people released were the first group of hostages freed.
About a half an hour later, Muscat announced that 65 passengers had been let go.
Tim Diacono, a journalist from Malta Today, told Al Jazeera the hijackers had grenades and “threatened to blow the plane up”.
“We don’t know what the demands are, but the negotiations are under way,” Diacono said. “There are people leaving the airplane as we speak, so it looks like it is being resolved peacefully, but it’s still too early to tell.”
The last major hijacking on the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta was in 1985, when Palestinians took over an Egyptair plane. Egyptian commandos stormed the aircraft and dozens of people were killed.
All passengers aboard the plane were in good health, an unnamed official at the Libyan foreign ministry told the state news agency LANA.
The prime minister’s office confirmed a negotiating team was at Malta International Airport.
— Joseph Muscat (@JosephMuscat_JM) December 23, 2016
Security personnel took up positions a few hundred metres from the plane as it sat on the tarmac.
The aircraft had been flying from Sebha in southwest Libya to Tripoli for state-owned Afriqiyah Airways, a route that would usually take about two hours.
The Afriqiyah Airways plane was diverted towards Malta, but turned back as far as Libyan airspace before changing course again and flying to the Mediterranean island, an airline official said.
“According to radar information the plane was going to Malta, then it flew back as far as Tripoli airspace, then it turned back towards Malta again,” said Farouk al-Wifati, the head of the Afriqiyah Airways office in Tripoli’s Mitiga airport, where the flight was due to land.
The tiny Mediterranean island of Malta is about 500km north of the Libyan coast.
Prime Minister Muscat also tweeted the passengers on board the plane included 82 men, 28 women and one infant.
The pilot of the Afriqiyah Airways plane told the control tower the aircraft had been hijacked, a senior security official at the airport said.
“The pilot reported to the control tower in Tripoli that they were being hijacked, then they lost communication with him,” the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The pilot tried very hard to have them land at the correct destination but they refused.”
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies