Hijackers surrender after seizing Libyan plane and forcing it to land in Malta

Two men armed with a grenades hijacked the plane with 118 people on board but later released all the passengers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 December, 2016, 7:18pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 December, 2016, 11:02pm

The hijackers of a Libyan plane that landed in Malta earlier on Friday left the aircraft and surrendered after releasing all the passengers and crew, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said.

“Hijackers surrendered, searched and taken in custody,” Muscat tweeted.

Two men armed with a grenades hijacked the plane with 118 people on board. After more than an hour on the tarmac, the plane’s door opened and a first group of women and children were seen descending a mobile staircase.

“First group of passengers, consisting of women and children, being released now,” Muscat said on Twitter, adding in a later tweet that 50 passengers in all were being let off the plane. The Airbus A320 had been on a domestic Libyan route operated by Afriqiyah Airways from Sabha in southern Libya to the capital Tripoli but was re-routed.

“The Afriqiyah flight from Sabha to Tripoli has been diverted and has landed in Malta. Security services coordinating operations,” Muscat said on his official Twitter account.

“It has been established that Afriqiyah flight has 111 passengers on board: 82 males, 28 females, 1 infant,” he said. There are also seven crew members. Muscat later spoke to Libya’s prime minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the north African country’s fledgling unity government.

The plane was on the tarmac, surrounded by military vehicles, and all flights in and out of the airport were initially either delayed or diverted to destinations in Italy.

There were conflicting reports about the number of hijackers but one reportedly claimed to be the leader of a pro-Gaddafi party, referring to the former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was toppled in 2011.

Maltese government sources said that there was a single hijacker on board who had told the crew that he had a grenade and would release the passengers only if his as yet unspecified demands were met. A source from Libya’s unity government spoke of “hijackers” on board. “Negotiations are under way to guarantee the security of all the passengers,” the source said, without specifying who was negotiating.

An Afriqiyah Airways source said two hijackers had threatened the pilots with an explosive device, probably a grenade. Malta International Airport tweeted that there had been “an unlawful interference” but operations resumed.

Flights from Brussels, London and Paris had been due to land at the airport on Friday and were delayed. The flight from Paris was later able to land, according to the airport’s online arrivals board. All outgoing flights were delayed.

Libya has been in a state of chaos since the 2011 overthrow of late ruler Colonel Muammar Gaddafi left warring militias battling for control of different parts of the country.

Forces loyal to a fledgling national unity government recently took control of the coastal city of Sirte, which had been a bastion for Islamic State since June 2015.

Western powers have pinned their hopes of containing jihadism in the energy-rich North African state on the government but it has failed to establish its authority over all of the country.

A rival authority rules the country’s far east, backed by the forces under military strongman Marshal Khalifa Haftar who have been battling jihadists in second city Benghazi.

Only local airlines – banned from European airspace – operate in Libya, with flights to Tunis, Cairo, Amman, Istanbul and Khartoum.

Additional reporting by Reuters