A local Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 flight from Sabha with 118 passengers (including crew members) on board was bound for the capital Tripoli when it was hijacked. Two hijackers took control of the flight soon after the takeoff. It is reported that the crew wanted to land the plan in Libya, but the hijackers forced them to divert the plane to Malta, some 350 kilometers from the Libyan coast in the Mediterranean Sea.
Security personals and emergency services were on standby as the plane landed. According to the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Etienne Saint John, the Maltese military led the contacts with the hijackers, who had threatened to blow the plane by hand grenades.
The hijackers surrendered after a stand-off at the Malta International Airport. Almost all the 118 passengers and crew members were released after which the hijackers surrendered.
After releasing the passengers, both the hijackers came down the plane steps with their hands raised and were arrested. Speaking at a press conference after the arrest, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat revealed the men were armed with pistol and grenade. A second gun was also discovered after the plane was searched.
He said that both the hijackers, who appear to be of Libyan nationality, have been detained for interrogation, while passengers and crew members were also questioned to ascertain the events. He said that the passengers and the crew members would be sent to Libya once the interrogation process ends, within a couple of hours.
From the nascent reports, it appears that the hijackers maybe the supporter of the late Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. A green Gaddafi-era flag was waved by a man from the plane. A local television station in Libya reported it was able to talk to one of the hijackers, and they wanted to promote a new pro-Gaddafi party.
Maltese Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, was tweeting live updates as the event unfolded.
He said that his country’s security was on standby, then gave the details on the passenger list which included 82 men, 28 women, and one infant.
Malta International Airport was closed during the time of the stand-off, all the flights were either diverted, delayed or canceled.
The mayor of Sabha, Colonel Hamed al-Khayali said that the plane left Sabha’s Tmenhant military airport at 11:05 local time for Tripoli. According to the initial information, he hinted that the pair might claim political asylum in Malta.
He stated that the plane was hijacked and the investigations were underway to determine how the explosives or any weapons ended up on board.
He also added that the security at Tmenhant was inadequate, and there is a distance of 5 kilometers between the buildings and tarmac. “That is an open space, and it is possible that along that route something was smuggled on board,” he said.
The airport security in Libya is lax with armed groups controlling security who don’t have an allegiance to any Libyan administration. A ban which has been in effect for two years doesn’t allow flights from Libya to land directly in Europe, and this latest incident isn’t going to help things.