A hijacker who forced an EgyptAir plane to divert to Cyprus has surrendered after a tense, hours-long standoff. Authorities believe it was not a coordinated terrorist attack.
A passenger who claimed to be wearing an explosive belt took control of Flight MS181 shortly after its takeoff from Alexandria's Borg al-Arab Airport, en route to Cairo.
He threatened to blow himself up if the pilot did not divert to Larnaca airport in Cyprus, Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fatthi said in a news conference on Tuesday. There were at least 55 passengers on the flight; some reports placed the number on the plane higher, at 80 passengers.
On the tarmac in Larnaca, nearly everyone on board was released, save for the pilot, copilot, two crew members and three passengers. Fatthi declined to name their nationalities.
After several hours, the hijacker, identified as Egyptian national Seif Al-Din Mustafa, released all remaining hostages. Cypriot news outlets broadcast images of him leaving the plane with his hands above his head.
"Thank God all our passengers and crew members are safe, and that was our most important concern,” said Fatthi in an interview after the arrest, adding that the hijacking did not qualify as a “terrorist act.”
“The information we have now [shows] that it was not a professional attack.”
The Cypriot Foreign Ministry corroborated the report with a laconic tweet on its official account saying “It’s over. The hijacker arrested.”
There were conflicting reports regarding the motive behind the hijacking.
A Cypriot broadcaster reported that the hijacker demanded the release of Egyptian female prisoners in Egypt, according to Reuters, while others said he was seeking to meet his estranged ex-wife, now living in Cyprus.
Egypt’s prime minister, Sherif Ismail, seemed equally perplexed.
“At certain moments the hijacker was demanding to meet a representative of the European Union, in other moments he was demanding to be allowed to leave Larnaca Airport, but there were no specific demands.”
It was also unclear whether the hijacker actually had a bomb. A Cypriot official speaking on condition of anonymity told the Associated Press that there were no explosives inside the belt he was carrying.
Egyptian officials said an aircraft would depart from Cairo Airport to Larnaca as soon as possible to return the passengers to Egypt.
The incident adds to Egypt's tarnished airport security record.
Last October, a Russian Metrojet plane carrying 224 passengers from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg was blown up by Islamic State. In the wake of the blast, Russian and British airlines imposed an embargo on all civilian flights to the country.
When asked about the level of security at Egyptian airports, Ismail insisted security measures were under constant monitoring and evaluation.
"We are deploying decisive and precise measures at our airports. There is always a follow up on all our ports and, God willing, there will be continuous reviewing [of security] and new devices [to be installed]."
Hassan is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Nabih Bulos contributed to this report.