Egypt plane hijacker's motives unclear

Passengers at Larnaca airport after disembarking from the aircraft. Those on board included 21 foreigners. Some reports described the hijacker as a former Egyptian army officer who lived in Cyprus up to 1994. A man (far right) believed to be the hija
A man (right) believed to be the hijacker of the Cairo-bound EgyptAir flight, surrendering to security forces after a six-hour stand-off on the tarmac at Larnaca airport's largely disused old terminal yesterday in Cyprus. The man, who officials said was motivated by personal reasons, has an estranged Cypriot wife and four children who live with her.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Passengers at Larnaca airport after disembarking from the aircraft. Those on board included 21 foreigners. Some reports described the hijacker as a former Egyptian army officer who lived in Cyprus up to 1994. A man (far right) believed to be the hija
Passengers at Larnaca airport after disembarking from the aircraft. Those on board included 21 foreigners. Some reports described the hijacker as a former Egyptian army officer who lived in Cyprus up to 1994. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Man with fake explosives belt surrenders after forcing plane to land in Cyprus; all 81 people on board leave aircraft unharmed

LARNACA (Cyprus) • A Cairo-bound EgyptAir flight that normally takes 45 minutes stretched into hours for 81 people on board when it was hijacked and forced to land in Cyprus yesterday.

It sparked a tense stand-off at Larnaca airport, which was closed as security personnel took up positions at the scene.

Most of the passengers were allowed to disembark but for a handful of crew and passengers.

The hijacker, who officials said was motivated by personal reasons and whose supposed explosives belt turned out to be fake, gave himself up and was detained.

He was later identified as Seif Eldin Mustafa, 59. Some reports described him as a former Egyptian army officer who lived in Cyprus up to 1994. He was married to a Cypriot woman and they had four children, who live with their mother.

The 81 people, including 21 foreigners and 15 crew members, had been on board the Airbus 320 flight when it took off from Alexandria.

After the aircraft landed at Larnaca airport, negotiations began. Before the man surrendered, people were seen leaving the aircraft, including one who climbed out of the cockpit window.

Witnesses saw a man emerging from the aircraft, walking across the tarmac and then raising his hands to two waiting counter-terrorism officers. They made him lie on the ground and searched him before taking him away.

"It's over," the Cypriot Foreign Ministry said in a tweet.

Speaking to reporters after the crisis ended, Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said the hijacker would be questioned to ascertain his motives. "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.

Egypt's Civil Aviation Ministry said the pilot, Mr Omar al-Gammal, had told the authorities that he was threatened by a passenger who claimed to be wearing a suicide explosive belt and forced him to divert the plane to Larnaca.

Reached by telephone, Mr Gammal told Reuters that the hijacker seemed "abnormal".

"I am not in a state to speak," said the exhausted-sounding pilot, adding that he had been obliged to treat the suicide belt as a serious security threat.

In the midst of the crisis, witnesses said the hijacker had thrown a letter onto the apron in Larnaca airport, written in Arabic, asking that it be delivered to his estranged wife.

Asked about reports that the hijacker had demanded to see a Cypriot woman, Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades laughed and said: "Always there is a woman."

Passengers on the plane included eight Americans, four Britons, four Dutch citizens, two Belgians, an Italian, a Syrian and a French national.

Yesterday's incident raised renewed questions over airport security in Egypt and is certain to deal another blow to its tourism industry and hurt efforts to revive an economy hammered by political unrest following the 2011 uprising.

The sector, a main source of hard currency for the import-dependent country, was already reeling from the crash of a Russian passenger plane in the Sinai peninsula on Oct 31 last year. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group claimed to have smuggled a bomb on board.

Russia has suspended all the country's flights to Egypt since the crash, which killed all 224 people on board, most of them Russians.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, XINHUA

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2016, with the headline 'Egypt plane hijacker's motives unclear'. Print Edition | Subscribe