Using fake guns, two men Friday hijacked an Afriqiyah Airways flight on service from Libya’s southwestern city of Sabha to the capital, Tripoli with 111 passengers (82 men, 28 women and a child) and seven crew members on board., and forced it to fly to Malta, where they surrendered after four hours of negotiations.
Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said the hijackers had used hoax weapons. Initial forensic exams now showing weapons used in Afriqiyah hijack are replicas, he wrote on his Twitter account, to counter earlier reports, which spoke of a hand grenade and two handguns found onboard.
The hijackers reportedly claimed they wanted publicity for a new political party before letting passengers and crew leave the plane unharmed. During the negotiations, one of the hijackers told Libya’s Channel TV in a phone call that he headed a party supporting Khaddafi, and had organised the incident to promote the group. The men’s party was apparently called the New Al-Fateh, a reference to the 1969 coup that brought Khaddafi to power, it was reported. According to some reports, the hijackers also demanded that Khaddafi's son Saif al-Islam be released from jail.
The four-hour standoff with negotiators from Malta and Libya ended when the two men came out of the Afriqiyah Airways plane with a crewmember who was their last hostage, and were led away in handcuffs.
Muscat said the negotiators had refused to open discussions until all passengers had been released and denied a report from the Libyan foreign minister that the men had claimed political asylum.
“The hijackers were told that in order for any discussions to be entertained, they should release all passengers first,” Muscat said. “This request was negotiated and eventually accepted and passengers were released in groups.”
Khaddafi was toppled and killed in a 2011 uprising, during which three of his sons also died. Since then, much of the oil-rich, sparsely populated country has descended into chaos. Rival governments are vying for control, with western nations backing the UN-brokered administration as the best hope for uniting Libya, while a parliament that meets in the far east refuses to accept the government’s authority.
The power vacuum has allowed affiliates of Islamic State and al-Qaida to take root and fuelled human trafficking along the coast. In recent years Libya’s beaches have become a key jumping-off point for migrants and refugees attempting the dangerous sea journey to Europe.
All flights to and from Malta’s airport were cancelled or diverted during the standoff, and security forces gathered near the plane, which sat on the runway with its engines running long after it had landed.
Malta has been a destination for hijackers before. In 1985, an EgyptAir flight from Athens to Cairo was forced to land on the island, where a 24-hour ordeal ended with the death of 60 hostages. Many of them were killed when Egyptian commandos stormed the plane in what was considered a botched operation.
Twelve years earlier, the then prime minister, Dom Mintoff, negotiated a successful conclusion to another hijacking. A KLM flight from Amsterdam to Tokyo was hijacked over Iraqi airspace, then flew to Malta after it was refused landing permission everywhere else. Mintoff secured the release of 247 passengers and eight crewmembers in return for fuel, and the plane headed to Dubai, where the remaining hostages were released.
In 1997, an Air Malta flight to Istanbul was hijacked by two men who used hoax bombs to force a landing in Germany. They surrendered peacefully after two hours of negotiations.