EgyptAir hijacker surrenders in Cyprus
All the passengers and crew of the hijacked Egyptian airliner were safe
An EgyptAir plane flying from Alexandria to Cairo was hijacked and forced to land in Cyprus on Tuesday but the passengers and crew were freed unharmed and the hijacker, whose motives remained a mystery, was arrested after giving himself up.
Passengers and crew members of the hijacked flight arrived in Cairo Airport late Tuesday, state television said.
Eighty-one people, including 21 foreigners and 15 crew, had been onboard the Airbus 320 flight when it took off, Egypt's Civil Aviation Ministry said.
"The passengers are safe and the crew is safe," Egypt's civil aviation minister Sherif Fathy said on state television, minutes after the Cypriot government spokesman said that the hijacker had been taken into custody.
"The hijacker has just been arrested," the spokesman said. The hijacker emerged from the aircraft with his hands in the air, Cyprus's state broadcaster said.
Conflicting theories emerged about the hijacker's motives, with Cypriot officials saying early on the incident did not appear related to terrorism but the Cypriot state broadcaster saying he had demanded the release of women prisoners in Egypt.
After the aircraft landed at Larnaca airport, negotiations began and everyone onboard was freed except three passengers and four crew, Egypt's civil aviation minister said.
Soon after his comments, Cypriot television footage showed several people leaving the plane via the stairs and another man climbing out of the cockpit window and running off.
The hijacker then surrendered to authorities.
Cyprus' foreign affairs ministry identified the hijacker as Seif Eldin Mustafa.
Egyptian state media had earlier identified the hijacker as Egyptian national Ibrahim Samaha. The Egyptian government later apologized to Samaha for the misidentification.
In the midst of the crisis, witnesses said the hijacker had thrown a letter on the apron in Larnaca, written in Arabic, asking that it be delivered to his ex-wife, who is Cypriot.
But the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation (CyBC) said the hijacker had asked for the release of women prisoners in Egypt, suggesting a political motive.
The hijacking was not related to terrorism, the island's President Nicos Anastasiades said.
"The hijacking is not terrorism-related," he told a joint news conference with the visiting president of the European Parliament Martin Schultz.
Meanwhile, Egypt's foreign ministry spokesperson referred to the hijacker as "not a terrorist, but an idiot."
Speaking to reporters after the crisis ended, Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said the hijacker was an Egyptian national but that his motives remained unclear.
"At some moments he asked to meet with a representative of the European Union and at other points he asked to go to another airport but there was nothing specific," he said, adding that the man would now be questioned to ascertain his motives.
'Suicide belt' claims
Egypt's Civil Aviation Ministry said the plane's pilot, Omar al-Gammal, had informed authorities that he was threatened by a passenger who claimed to be wearing a suicide explosives belt and forced him to divert the plane to Larnaca. Earlier in the day, the pilot had contacted the Cairo airport control tower to report the hijacking.
The Egyptian minister said authorities suspected the suicide belt was not genuine but treated the incident as serious to ensure the safety of all those on board.
Following his surrender, searches by Cyprus police found no explosives on the hijacker. Counter-terrorism police frisked the hijacker on the tarmac then interrogated him for more than an hour before boarding the plane and searching it with sniffer dogs.
The plane remained on the tarmac at Larnaca throughout the morning while Cypriot security forces took up positions around the scene. It had been due to land in Cairo at 7.15am.
The hijacker contacted the Cypriot control tower at 8:30 am (0530 GMT) and the plane was given permission to land at 8:50 am, the police said.
Flights to Larnaca in the south were diverted to the Paphos airport in the west.
Our flight MS181 is officially hijacked. we'll publish an official statement now. #Egyptair— EGYPTAIR (@EGYPTAIR) March 29, 2016
Larnaca is no stranger to hostage crises. Several hijacked planes were diverted to the airport in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1988, a Kuwait Airways flight hijacked en route from Bangkok to Kuwait was diverted to Mashhad and later to Larnaca, where hijackers killed two Kuwaiti passengers and dumped their bodies on the tarmac.
In February 1978, an Egyptian commando unit stormed a hijacked Cyprus Airways DC-8 at Larnaca airport, where 15 passengers were being held hostage. Some 15 Egyptian soldiers were killed and 15 wounded. All the hostages were freed and the hijackers arrested.
Militant attacks in Egypt have surged since 2013, hampering the country’s efforts to revive its economy and lure in foreign investors. A Russian passenger plane was brought down over Sinai in October in an attack claimed by the ISIS group. Since then, foreign inspections have been carried out at Egyptian airports.
Global airline and airport security officials are on heightened alert after bombs ripped through the airport in Belgium’s capital Brussels last week. Asian airports had stepped up checks since the Paris terrorist attacks and the suspected bombing of the Russian aircraft over Sinai.
Al Arabiya English will be providing you with the latest updates on this developing story. Click here to watch all you need to know about the plane’s hijack.