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Libyans hijack flight to Malta, then release all passengers and surrender

An Afriqiyah Airways plane from Libya stands on the tarmac at Malta's Luqa International airport on Dec. 23.
An Afriqiyah Airways plane from Libya stands on the tarmac at Malta’s Luqa International airport on Dec. 23.
(Jonathan Borg / Associated Press)

Hijackers who claimed to be armed with grenades took control of a domestic flight in Libya on Friday, threatening to blow up the plane and forcing the pilot to land in Malta with 118 people aboard, officials said.

The passengers and crew were eventually released and the hijackers surrendered peacefully, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said.

For the record:

8:10 AM, Dec. 23, 2016

An earlier version of this article said there were seven crew members aboard the flight. Authorities later corrected that to six.

The two hijackers identified themselves as supporters of deposed Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi, but it was not clear what their demands were, according to Magda Magri Naudi, mayor of the Maltese city of Lija.

She said the passengers included 83 men, 28 women and a baby. It was not clear what their nationalities were, she said, or if any were injured. There were six crew members aboard, Muscat said.

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As the ordeal progressed, Naudi said, 25 female passengers were let off the plane, and later, the rest of the passengers, who were believed to include a member of the Libyan parliament.

During a news conference in Valletta following the hostages’ release, Muscat said that when the hijackers agreed to surrender, they turned over their weapons, which included a hand grenade and a pistol. The two men, both Libyan nationals, were detained and interrogated, he said.

He said a second pistol was found during a search of the plane. He said the plane’s passengers and crew were also being questioned.

Muscat said the hijackers were initially told that in order to maintain contact with negotiators, they had to release all passengers, which they did in stages. When the hijackers later demanded that two Maltese negotiators board the plane, authorities refused, Muscat said.

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The Airbus A320 aircraft operated by Afriqiyah Airways departed from Sebha on a domestic flight to Tripoli shortly after 10 a.m. local time but was diverted when the hijackers threatened the crew, according to Naudi.

“They told them, ‘We have grenades, and we will explode the airplane if you don’t do what we say,’” she said.

It wasn’t clear how the hijackers managed to get access to the cockpit, but Naudi said the crew never was forced to relinquish the plane’s controls, unlike in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“The captain and the crew managed to land the aircraft themselves, and they did not hand it over to the hijackers, not like the hijackers so many years ago in America,” Naudi said.

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The plane landed at the Malta airport at 11:30 a.m., where it was immediately surrounded by security forces.

The tiny Mediterranean island nation’s airport was closed after the plane’s arrival, with all other flights diverted.

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UPDATES:

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8:10 a.m.: This article was updated with the hijackers surrendering.

7 a.m.: This article was updated with all passengers reportedly released.

5:25 a.m.: This article was updated with Times reporting, quotes from Naudi.

4:55 a.m.: This article was updated with passengers disembarking.

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3:50 a.m.: This article was updated with hijackers’ threat to blow up the plane.

This article was originally published at 3:15 a.m.


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