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Libyan hijackers used fake weapons

Two men were initially thought to have used a real grenade and at least one pistol

Agencies
15:03 December 23, 2016
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Two men used fake weapons Friday to hijack a Libyan plane with 117 people on board and divert it to Malta, before releasing everyone and surrendering, officials said.

The Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 was en route from Sabha in southern Libya to the capital Tripoli when it was taken over and forced to fly to Malta, sparking a four-hour runway standoff.

While they were initially thought to have used a real grenade and at least one pistol to stage the hijacking, it later emerged that the pair used fake weapons, a Maltese government statement said.

"Initial forensic investigations about the attempted hijack... show that the weapons used were identical replica weapons," the statement said.

"The operation to ensure that the aircraft is safe from explosives or other arms is still ongoing."

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said the two men, probably of Libyan nationality, were arrested.

Libyan Foreign Minister Taher Siala from the fledgling national unity government said the two were supporters of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, whose death in 2011 has plunged Libya into chaos.

Siala said they wanted to set up a pro-Gaddafi political party and would ask for political asylum in Malta, although Muscat said they had not done so.

The plane landed at Malta International Airport at 11.34am, with 109 passengers, six crew and the two hijackers on board.

All flights in and out of the island were temporarily shut down while the Maltese military conducted negotiations.

No demands

The plane stood immobile for around an hour on a secondary runway surrounded by military vehicles, before a door opened and a first group of women and children were seen descending from a mobile staircase.

Dozens more passengers followed minutes later.

Muscat said the hijackers were told there would be no negotiations unless all passengers were set free.

After releasing all the passengers and two of the crew members, the hijackers held only the four staff "for a period of time", he said.

Following further negotiations "the hijackers agreed to free the remaining members of the crew and to surrender", he continued, adding that "the hijackers did not make any requests".

Armed Maltese military personnel were later seen storming the plane.

All passengers and crew members would be interrogated before a charter flight takes them back to Libya, Muscat said.

 

EARLIER UPDATES

6.48pm: The two hijackers who forced a Libyan passenger plane to divert to Malta have left the plane along with the crew, the Maltese prime minister said.

The hijackers have asked for political asylum in Malta, Libya's foreign minister said.

Taher Siala, the foreign minister of Libya's Government of National Accord, also said that the hijackers have said they want to set up a pro-Gaddafi political party.

 

6.03pm: Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said a total of 109 passengers had been released from the hijacked Libyan plane which landed in Malta on Friday.

Muscat said an initial group of 25 women and children released from the plane were quickly followed by nearly all of the 118 people on board the Airbus A320 jet.

 

5.47pm: Two hijackers on board the Afriqiyah Airways flight that landed in Malta on Friday are carrying hand grenades but it was not clear what their demands are, a Libyan member of parliament who spoke to a colleague on board the flight said.

Hadi Al Saghir said that a fellow member of Libya's House of Representatives had told him that the two hijackers were in their mid 20s and were from the Tebu, an ethnic group present in southern Libya from where the plane departed.

 

5.39pm: 65 passengers have so far been released from the hijacked Libyan plane, the Maltese prime minister said, with a further 44 set to be released.

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5.01pm: A group of passengers, consisting of women and children, have left the hijacked plane. 

The Maltese prime minister tweeted that 25 passengers have left, and more are disembarking.

 

ORIGINAL REPORT

Valletta: An airliner on an internal flight in Libya was hijacked and diverted to Malta where it landed on Friday, Maltese media reported.

Malta state TV said two hijackers with hand grenades were threatening to blow up the Airbus A320, which was flying inside Libya for state-owned airline Afriqiyah Airways with 118 people aboard.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tweeted: "Informed of potential hijack situation of a #Libya internal flight diverted to #Malta. Security and emergency operations standing by -JM".

The airliner  has 111 passengers on board, including an infant, Muscat said on Twitter.

Some reports said there was only one hijacker.

He told crew he was "pro-Gaddafi" and that he was willing to let all passengers leave the Airbus A320, but not its seven crew, if his demands were met, the Times of Malta said.

It was unclear what the demands were.

Troops took up positions a few hundred metres (yards) from the plane as it stood on the tarmac and no one was seen boarding or leaving it.

The aircraft's engines were still running 45 minutes after it landed late in the morning, the Times of Malta said. Some other flights at Malta International Airport were cancelled or diverted, it said.

A senior Libyan security official told Reuters that when the plane was still in flight on Friday morning the pilot told the control tower at Tripoli's Mitiga airport it had been hijacked.

"The pilot reported to the control tower in Tripoli that they were being hijacked, then they lost communication with him," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"The pilot tried very hard to have them land at the correct destination but they refused."

Large numbers of security officials could be seen at Mitiga airport after news of the hijacking.

The aircraft had been flying from Sebha in southwest Libya to Tripoli for state-owned Afriqiyah Airways, a route that would usually take a little over two hours.

The tiny Mediterranean island of Malta, a European Union member, is about 500km north of Tripoli.