Hijackers who flew a Libyan plane to Malta have released 65 passengers, including most of the women and children on board, and are in negotiations about the fate of 63 other people still being held, the country’s prime minister said.
The Airbus A320, operated by the state-owned airline Afriqiyah Airways, was hijacked on an internal route between the cities of Sabha and Tripoli. There were 111 passengers and 7 crew on board, with one Libyan law maker named as Abdel-Salam al-Marabet reported on the passenger list.
The two hijackers claimed to be in possession of hand grenades, the Times of Malta reported, but it was not clear what their demands were.
Negotiations were underway by early afternoon, and the first releases were announced soon after Muscat spoke to his Libyan counterpart Faez al Serraj.
“First group of passengers, consisting of women and children, being released now,” Muscat said on Twitter, without giving details of the conditions of their escape. Further announcements followed shortly.
The plane had initially flown towards Malta, which lies only 350 kilometres north of Tripoli, headed back towards Libya and then returned to land in Malta, an official from Afriqiyah Airways said.
The pilot had tried to persuade the hijackers to land in Libya, Reuters quoted a security source at the main airport saying, but they refused.
“The pilot reported to the control tower in Tripoli that they were being hijacked, then they lost communication with him,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The pilot tried very hard to have them land at the correct destination but they refused.”
All flights to and from Malta’s airport had been cancelled or diverted, and security forces gathered near the plane, which sat on the runway with engines still running long after it landed.
Muscat had earlier said security and emergency operations were on standby. The Maltese president, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, appealed for calm.
Malta lies only 350km north of Tripoli, and even closer to Tunisia, and has been a destination for hijackers before.
In 1985 an EgyptAir flight from Athens to Cairo was forced to land in Malta, where a 24-hour ordeal ended with the death of 60 hostages, many killed when Egyptian commandos stormed the plane in what was considered a botched operation.
A decade earlier the then prime minister Dom Mintoff negotiated a happier conclusion to another hijacking. A KLM flight from Amsterdam to Tokyo was hijacked over Iraqi airspace, then flew to Malta after being refused landing permission anywhere else. Mintoff secured the release of 247 passengers and 8 crew in return for fuel, and the plane headed to Dubai where the remaining hostages were released.