MELBOURNE • A Sri Lankan student who tried to enter an airline cockpit with what he said was a bomb, before passengers overpowered him, had been released from psychiatric care just before boarding the plane.
Passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH128 from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur said they feared for their lives when the 25-year-old, identified as Manodh Marks, rushed towards the cockpit shouting that he wanted to "blow the plane up".
"He had been released from psychiatric care (on Wednesday) and, from there, we believe he purchased a ticket (to get) on this plane," Victoria state police chief Graham Ashton told reporters yesterday.
Several passengers wrestled the man to the floor, Mr Ashton said. The crew gave them seat belts to hog-tie him before the plane, carrying 337 passengers, returned and made an emergency landing at Melbourne airport.
Armed officers from an elite police unit boarded the flight, handcuffing the man and escorting him off. Photographs taken by a passenger and supplied to Agence France- Presse showed black-clad officers carrying rifles in the cabin.
The suspect, who lived in the south-east Melbourne suburb of Dandenong and was studying to be a chef, said he was carrying a bomb, but the device was actually a bluetooth speaker slightly larger than an iPhone, Mr Ashton said.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the incident was "not currently being treated as terrorism-related".
"I am informed the man has a criminal history and has previously been treated for mental health issues," he told Parliament.
Marks was charged with making threats and false claims, and endangering an aircraft's safety - offences that carry a 10-year sentence - in the Melbourne Magistrates' Court yesterday. But the suspect refused to be brought up from the cells to face the hearing, news.com.au reported.
While officials played down the incident, passengers spoke of a terrifying 90-minute ordeal after the plane took off. A business-class passenger, former Australian Rules football player Andrew Leoncelli, spoke to Melbourne radio station 3AW.
"The staff were saying, 'Sit back down sir, sit back down sir'. He goes, 'No, I am not going to sit back down, I am going to blow the plane up'," Mr Leoncelli said. "The staff screamed out, 'I need some help, I need some help'. So I jumped up, undid my buckle and approached him."
Mr Leoncelli said the man ran to the back of the plane, where two other passengers grabbed him, removed the device and "put hog ties on him".
A passenger who gave her name as Laura told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that she feared for her life. "I thought the plane was going to go down, I thought the bomb was going to go off, I really did think I was going to die," she said.
Some passengers questioned why it took so long for the elite unit to arrive after the plane landed, complaining they had to wait an hour.
But Mr Ashton said there was no delay for such a "life or death scenario", and that officers had to sift through reports of more than one alleged attacker and confirm if the device was explosive before they could safely remove the passengers.
The incident came just months after Canberra called off the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 after a vast underwater hunt off Australia's west coast failed to find the plane.
MH370, carrying 239 passengers and crew, disappeared in March 2014, while another passenger jet, MH17, was shot down in July of the same year while flying over Ukraine.