An Egyptian man with a Cypriot ex wife who hijacked a domestic Egyptair flight wearing a fake suicide belt and engaged in a dramatic standoff with authorities at Larnaca airport lasting more than six hours before he surrendered, will appear in court on Wednesday, police said.
The motive of the hijacker, Seif Eldin Mustafa, 59, who lived in Cyprus until 1994, remained unclear late Tuesday although it was plain to authorities almost from the start that the hijacking was not terrorist related. None of the 63 people – 55 passengers, seven crew and one security guard – aboard the Airbus A320 flight MS181, from Alexandria to Cairo was hurt during the standoff.
“It is not something which has to do with terrorism,” President Nicos Anastasiades told reporters earlier during a press briefing with European Parliament President Martin Schulz. Asked if a woman was involved following reports Mustafa wanted to speak to his ex wife, he said: “There is always a woman involved”, a comment for which the president was given a roasting on social media, and which ran as a separate article on major news outlets.
Cypriot authorities said the hijacker’s demands from the start were rambling and incoherent, and he was psychologically unstable, though there was one point near the end of the drama when the crew and two British passengers were still on board, that turned into a “dangerous complication”, they said.
Mustafa had gone from wanting a letter in Arabic – dropped on to the apron – delivered to his ex wife who was brought to the airport, to demands to meet EU representatives to asking for women political prisoners in Egypt to be released. “His demands were neither logical nor coherent,” Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides said. As regards the letter he said there was no coherency there either.
Kasoulides who headed up a ministerial crisis team during the hijacking, said once most of the passengers had been allowed off the plane early on in the drama and were taken by bus to the old Larnaca airport terminal. But when Mustafa was told shortly before his surrender at 2.40pm that his demands would not be met, he made the threat to blow up the plane unless it was refueled and allowed to fly to Istanbul.
The foreign minister said that finally when one of the crew began to climb out through the cockpit window “he realised there was no chance of his demands being met and allowed the last two British passengers to leave,” said Kasoulides, adding that the hijacker tried to run once he got off the plane.
A search of the aircraft found no explosives and the hijacker’s fake suicide belt was filled with mobile phone covers to give the impression they were explosives, Kasoulides said. Egyptian interior ministry officials said Mustafa was expelled from law school and had a long criminal record, including robberies.
The hostage negotiations began shortly after the plane landed at Larnaca airport to where it had been diverted as it was flying within the Nicosia Flight Information Region. The incident shut the airport down for eight hours, delaying dozens of flights and inconveniencing hundreds of passengers. “Honestly this happened over a woman?” one passenger told the Cyprus Mail.
Foreign ministry permanent secretary Alexandros Zenon said the plane requested to land at Larnaca before 8am saying it was low on fuel. “We gave our consent because there were about 70 persons on board the aircraft. It landed at Larnaca airport in an isolated area, under the supervision of the security authorities. Immediately the crises management team was mobilised at the ministry of foreign affairs, where the ministers of the interior, defence, transport, and justice gathered, with other competent officials to handle the situation,” he said.
Though they knew they were not dealing with a terrorist, “nevertheless, the authorities of the Republic take very seriously the actions of the hijacker,” he added. Police and MMAD units surrounded the area and also had snipers in place.
According to Reuters, Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry said the pilot, Omar al-Gammal, had told authorities that he was threatened by a passenger who claimed to be wearing an explosive belt and forced him to divert the plane to Larnaca. Reached by telephone, Gammal told Reuters that the hijacker seemed “abnormal”. Sounding exhausted, he said he had been obliged to treat the man as a serious security threat.
Photographs on Egyptian state television showed a middle-aged man on a plane wearing glasses and displaying a white belt with bulging pockets and protruding wires. Television channels showed video footage of the hijacker, identified Mustafa, being searched by security men at a metal detector at Borg al-Arab airport in Alexandria.
Egypt’s Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fethy said authorities suspected the suicide belt was not genuine but treated the incident as serious to ensure the safety of all those on board. “We cannot say this was a terrorist act… he was not a professional,” Fethy told reporters after the incident.
Shortly After the aircraft landed at Larnaca, negotiations began and everyone on board was freed except three passengers and four crew. In the early afternoon Cypriot television footage showed several more people leaving the plane via the stairs and another man climbing out of the cockpit window and running off.
The hijacker then surrendered to authorities and was taken away amid heavy security.
“The hijacker has just been arrested,” Government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides tweeted immediately, followed by Anastasiades who said: “Congratulations to the #Cyprus Police and @CyprusMFA for their efforts to end the #hijacking & ensure the safety of all passengers and crew”.
Commenting later in the day, police spokesman Andreas Angelides when asked whether Mustafa would be extradited to Egypt, said it was too soon to discuss this.
“Since there are criminal offenses, we ought to investigate it thoroughly and objectively by looking into all details,” Angelides said.
He added that police had responded as soon as they were informed by the Larnaca airport’s control tower that a hijack was underway.
Two crisis centers were set up, he said, one in Nicosia and one at the airport. The role of the negotiators, especially trained police members, was crucial, Angelides added, and they had “handled the case successfully”, as they managed to secure the gradual release of hostages.
“Within six hours of negotiations the 59-year old was convinced to exit the aircraft,” Angelides said.
(Evie Andreou contributed to this report)