An Egyptian man who hijacked an EgyptAir flight and forced it to divert to Cyprus demanding to see his ex-wife surrendered Tuesday after a six-hour airport standoff ended peacefully.
The hijacker, described by officials as “unstable”, had claimed to be wearing a bomb belt but no explosives were discovered after he gave himself up at Larnaca airport and was arrested.
Most of the 55 passengers were quickly released after the plane had landed but some escaped only minutes before the hijacker surrendered, including one man who climbed out a cockpit window.
“This is not about terrorism. This is about the individual action of a person who is psychologically unstable,” said the Cypriot foreign ministry’s permanent secretary, Alexandros Zenon.
The Egyptian interior ministry identified the man as Seif al-Din Mohamed Mostafa.
The man had reportedly dropped a letter in Arabic on the tarmac, making a number of rambling demands including to see his Cypriot ex-wife, with whom he has children.
Police said she had been brought to the airport along with a child but provided no further details.
Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades had earlier told reporters the incident appeared to be motivated by personal reasons.
“The hijacking is not terrorism-related,” he told a joint news conference with the visiting president of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz.
Asked about reports that the hijacker had demanded to see a Cypriot woman, Anastasiades laughed and said: “Always there is a woman.”
After searching the hijacker and sending sniffer dogs into the plane, Cypriot police said no bombs had been found.
The EgyptAir plane, which had been headed from the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria to Cairo, landed in Larnaca at 8:50 am (0550 GMT), after the hijacker had contacted the control tower 20 minutes earlier to demand the diversion.
Egyptian civil aviation said he had threatened to detonate an explosives belt on the Airbus A-320.
Egypt’s Prime Minister Sharif Ismail said in televised remarks that the hijacker was an Egyptian and had demanded to speak to a European Union representative.
– Cockpit window escape –
Egyptian civil aviation officials said there were 21 foreigners among the passengers, and that the hijacker had demanded the plane land in either Turkey or Cyprus.
They included eight Americans, four Dutch citizens, four Britons and a French citizen, according to the Egyptian authorities.
Nearly all of the passengers were able to disembark shortly after the plane landed, but Egypt’s civil aviation minister Sherif Fathy told a press conference that the captain, a co-pilot, a flight attendant and a security guard, along with three passengers, had remained on board.
They were later seen exiting the aircraft, with several descending the steps from the plane and one clambering out of a cockpit window and dropping to the ground.
A man then emerged, walked across the tarmac and raised his hands to two waiting counter-terrorism officers. They laid him on the ground and searched him for around two minutes before taking him away.
At 2:43 pm, Cypriot government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides said on Twitter that “the hijacker has just been arrested”.
Officials in both Cyprus and Egypt then confirmed that all crew and passengers were safe.
– Flights diverted –
Authorities closed the airport — the main entry point for tourists to the resort island — and nearby beaches during the incident. Incoming flights were diverted to Paphos on the island’s western edge. The airport was later reopened.
Concerns were raised about security at Egyptian airports after a Russian airliner was downed on October 31 over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people on board. The Islamic State group claimed to have smuggled a bomb on board the plane.
Larnaca is no stranger to hostage crises. Several hijacked planes were diverted to the airport in the last few decades.
In August 1996, a Sudan Airways Airbus A-310 was hijacked by seven Iraqis between Khartoum and Amman with 199 people on board. After a stopover in Larnaca it flew on to London’s Stansted airport, where the hijackers gave themselves up.
In 1988, a Kuwait Airways flight hijacked en route from Bangkok to Kuwait was diverted to Iran’s second city 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 in a firefight with Cypriot forces. All the hostages were freed and the hijackers arrested.