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EgyptAir hijacker arrested, passengers freed

A man believed to be the hijacker of the EgyptAir Airbus A-320, which was diverted to Cyprus, leaves the plane before surrendering to security forces after a six-hour standoff on the tarmac at Larnaca airport's largely disused old terminal on March 29, 2016. The hijacker who seized the Egyptian airliner and forced it to land in Cyprus has been detained, Cypriot government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides said. GEORGE MICHAEL / AFP

A man believed to be the hijacker of the EgyptAir Airbus A-320, which was diverted to Cyprus, leaves the plane before surrendering to security forces after a six-hour standoff on the tarmac at Larnaca airport’s largely disused old terminal on March 29, 2016. The hijacker who seized the Egyptian airliner and forced it to land in Cyprus has been detained, Cypriot government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides said. GEORGE MICHAEL / AFP

After about an hour-long drama yesterday, an Egyptian man who hijacked an EgyptAir plane during a routine domestic flight to Cairo and forced it to land on the island of Cyprus surrendered and was taken into custody after he released all the passengers and crew.

His surrender ended the standoff at the Larnaca airport in southern Cyprus. The hijacker had earlier freed most of the passengers but kept seven people – four crew members and three passengers – with him.

Just minutes before the arrest, local TV footage from the airport showed several people disembarking from the aircraft and a man who appeared to be a crew member climbing out of the cockpit window and sliding down the side of the plane.

The Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Ministry in Cyprus, Alexandros Zenon, confirmed the hijacker’s surrender and subsequent arrest, saying the situation was “over.”

The arrest was also reported by Egypt’s Prime Minister, Sharif Ismail, and Civil Aviation Minister Sharif Fathi.

“All passengers and crew are safe,” Fathi said on state television.

The man’s motivation was unclear, but Cyprus President, Nicos Anastasiades, said the hijacking was “not something that has to do with terrorism” and a Cyprus government official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation, said the man “seems (to be) in love.”

Anastasiades, appearing alongside European Parliament President Martin Schulz in Nicosia, was asked by reporters whether he could confirm that the incident was about a woman. “Always, there is a woman” involved, he replied, drawing laughter.

A Cyprus police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to disclose details of the situation, said the hijacker walked off the plane and was taken into custody by special anti-terrorist police. The official said the man wore a belt but there were no explosives in it.

A civil aviation official, also speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t allowed to talk to the media, said the man gave negotiators the name of a woman who lives in Cyprus and asked to give her an envelope. It was not clear if she was his former wife.

The hijacker had also complained about the current Egyptian government and had demanded the release of female prisoners from Egyptian jails, he said.

The flight MS181 took off from the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria yesterday morning en route to Cairo with at least 55 passengers, including 26 foreigners, and a seven-member crew.

An official with flight-tracking website FlightRadar24 said the plane showed no immediate signs of distress. The flight between Alexandria and Cairo normally takes about 30 minutes.

There was also confusion about the hijacker’s identity. At a news conference in Cairo, Egypt’s Civil Aviation Minister, Fathi, refused to identify him.

Earlier, Egyptian government’s spokesman, Hossam al-Queish, said the hijacker was Ibrahim Samaha, but an Egyptian woman who identified herself as Samaha’s wife said her husband was not the hijacker and was on his way to Cairo so he could fly to the United States (U.S.) to attend a conference.

The woman, who identified herself only as Nahla, told the Egyptian private TV network ONTV that her husband had never been to Cyprus and that a photo on Egyptian and regional TV channels that supposedly showed the hijacker was not him. Later, the official Middle East News Agency gave a different name for the hijacker.

Egypt’s state news agency, MENA, later identified the hijacker as Seifedeen Mustafa. The name was confirmed by a senior Cypriot official.

Al-Queish, the government spokesman, also said that authorities could not confirm that the hijacker had explosives on him. An earlier statement from the Egyptian Aviation Ministry said the man claimed he had a belt with explosives.
He was said to have told the crew of the Cairo-bound plane that he was wearing a suicide belt shortly after takeoff in Alexandria, forcing it to land in Larnaca, Cyprus. According to the state broadcaster in Cyprus, Mustafa, an Egyptian national and former army officer, had a four-page letter in which he demanded the release of female prisoners in Egypt and asked for a meeting with his ex-wife.

According to the New York Times, the woman, who lives in Cyprus, “visited the airport and helped persuade him to surrender.”

Before he did, Mustafa released most of the 55 passengers and seven crew members from the plane as it sat on the tarmac. At one point, he appeared to hand the letter to a female airport official who had come to meet the plane as she held her head in her hands.

The alleged explosives on Mustafa’s belt were fake, Cyprus’ minister of foreign affairs said. No one was reported injured.



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