Friday, December 23, 2016

Plane Hijack Drama in Malta Ends; All Hostages Released
Times of Malta

Hijacker seen waving green flag; flights disrupted

All hostages have been released following a hijack drama at Malta International Airport.

At 3.20pm, the hijackers were seen leaving the plane and giving themselves up to soldiers.

The Afriqiyah Airways A320 with around 120 people on board landed in Malta after it was hijacked in Libyan airspace.

The plane was on an internal flight from Sebha to Tripoli and diverted by two hijackers in their mid 20s who claimed to have a hand grenade and threatened to blow up the plane.

A total of 111 passengers - 82 men, 28 women and an infant - and seven crew members were on board the aircraft which landed in Malta at 11.32am. All passengers are believed to be Libyan.

At 2.50pm, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tweeted that almost all passengers and were being released.

A Libyan security official told Reuters that the pilot told Tripoli Airport Control before communications were lost that the pilot tried to land in Libya but the hijackers refused.

Soldiers and emergency services surrounded the aircraft as soon as it landed in Malta.

The hijackers, claiming to be pro-Gaddafi group Al Fatah Al Gadida, had said they were willing to let all passengers go apart from the crew, if their demands were met.

It is not known what their demands are at this stage. It is not clear whether this is an act of terrorism or the result of the bitter Libyan political feud. One German report said they were demanding the release of Saif Gaddafi.

The claim was reinforced at 2.50pm when one of the hijackers was seen at the aircraft door waving the former green Libya flag. Reuters reported that the hijacker had told Libyan TV he is the head of the "pro-Gaddafi party".

A gangway was seen being taken towards the plane at 1.45pm and an aircraft door was opened disembarking women and children started. The first coachload of people was taken towards Lufthansa Technik before the rest of the passengers followed shortly after.

Some international media reports said that the hijackers wanted the plane to proceed to Rome, others that they were seeking to claim asylum.

The head of communications at the Prime Minister's office, Kurt Farrugia, tweeted at 1.15pm that Dr Muscat had just spoken to Libyan Prime Minister Faez al Serraj.

International media are reporting that the Libyan transport minister is negotiating with the hijackers. From the Maltese side, AFM commander Jeffrey Curmi was put at the head of negotiations.

Flights to Malta diverted

Meanwhile MIA informed passengers in the Departures Lounge that all flights had initially been cancelled or diverted until further notice. At 12.43pm, the airport informed passengers airport operations had resumed.

At 1.15pm passengers were informed that all flights were delayed and flights that had been diverted to Sicily started returning to Malta.

At 12.30pm, nine flights had already been diverted to Catania. Hundreds of passengers are believed to be waiting at the airport departures lounge in Malta as well as in airports in Sicily.

Afriqiyah Airways operates from Sebha to Tripoli on Friday, leaving at 10.10am and arriving at 11.20am.

It operates another flight on Tuesdays.

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil tweeted that he is following the news with grave concern. He offered cooperation to the government to protect Malta's security and passenger safety.

First major hijack in Malta since 1985

The last major hijack incident in Malta took place in November 23, 1985 when an EgyptAir Boeing 737 plane was diverted to the island.

What followed was a 24-hour nightmare that ended in a bloody massacre with 62 people dead when Egyptian commandos stormed the plane. Only one of the three hijackers survived and was brought to justice.

Forty-three years ago then Prime Minster Dom Mintoff managed to negotiate the release of 247 passengers and eight air hostesses on board a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet which was also hijacked over Iraq and flown to Malta.

The passengers and air hostesses were released in return for fuel. The plane had been hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. The plane later left Malta and the hijackers eventually surrendered.

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