Friday, December 23, 2016

All 109 Passengers Are Safe After Libyan Jet Is Hijacked and Diverted to Malta
New York Times
DEC. 23, 2016

CAIRO — All 109 passengers and crew members on board a hijacked Libyan airliner en route to the capital, Tripoli, were released on Friday, hours after two men claiming to be carrying explosives forced the plane to divert to Malta, the island’s prime minister said.

The hijackers, who were apparently members of a pro-Qaddafi group and seeking asylum in Europe, were taken into custody after surrendering as they left the Airbus A320, according to officials and news reports.

The flight, operated by the state-owned Afriqiyah Airways of Libya, took off from the southern Libyan city of Sebha and was scheduled to fly to Tripoli, which is on the coast. It was diverted to Malta, about 200 miles across the Mediterranean Sea from the Libyan capital.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of Malta, who provided a steady stream of updates on Twitter about the situation, had said that there were 111 passengers on the plane, including 82 men, 28 women and one infant, a breakdown that included the two hijackers. Afriqiyah officials confirmed that figure, adding that seven crew members had also been on board.

The Maltese prime minister reported that the hijackers first released a group of 25 women and children, followed by a second block of 25 people. He continued to post updates on Twitter until it was clear that all of the passengers and crew had disembarked.

The hijackers said they represented a new political party, called Al Fateh Al Jadeed — a reference to the 1969 military coup in Libya in which Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi came to power. “We did this to announce and publicize our new party,” one of the men said in a telephone interview with a Libyan news outlet.

Video footage from Malta showed a man standing outside the door of the plane waving a green flag — a symbolic nod to Colonel Qaddafi’s 42-year rule, which ended with his ouster and death in 2011.

Since then, Libya’s national flag has been replaced with a red, black and green standard that harks back to an earlier period of monarchical rule.

A senior Afriqiyah Airways official said the hijackers had demanded visas for Europe, suggesting they did not have links to radical militant groups and may instead be intending to seek asylum.

“We feared they might be some of those ideological people, but that seems not to be the case,” said the official, Captain Abdelatif Ali Kablan, the chairman of the airline, speaking by telephone from Tripoli.

It was the second hijacking this year of a passenger jet in the Mediterranean region. In March, an Egyptian man commandeered an EgyptAir domestic flight en route to Cairo and forced it to land in Cyprus, where he demanded the release of political prisoners in Egypt and a meeting with his estranged wife.

The crisis ended hours later with the surrender of the hijacker, Seif Eldin Mustafa, who turned out to be wearing a fake explosives vest fashioned from mobile phone cases that had been taped together.

In September, a court in Cyprus ordered the deportation of Mr. Mustafa, 59, to Egypt. His lawyers are resisting the order and seeking asylum for Mr. Mustafa, claiming he could be tortured if sent home.

Follow Declan Walsh on Twitter @declanwalsh.

Nour Youssef contributed reporting from Cairo, and Suliman Ali Zway from Berlin.

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