Libya Malta hijack: Hijackers arrested as drama ends peacefully

Media caption,
Soldiers board the plane in Malta

The hijacking of a Libyan plane has ended peacefully after the men who seized control surrendered in Malta.

The domestic flight with 118 people on board was hijacked after taking off from Sabha, bound for the Libyan capital Tripoli.

Instead, the Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 was diverted to Malta International Airport.

It appears the two hijackers are supporters of Libya's late deposed leader, Muammar Gaddafi.

Pictures of them kneeling on the tarmac with their hands up appear to show the moment they were arrested by the Maltese authorities.

All the passengers - including one infant - and a number of the crew had already been released.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat initially said that the men had been armed with pistols and a grenade - but later tweeted that the weapons appeared to be replicas.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Two men surrender at the bottom of the plane steps

Mr Muscat said neither of the men, believed to be of Libyan nationality, had made any demands.

He told a press conference: "The two hijackers have been detained in custody and interrogations are ongoing. The rest of the crew and passengers are also being questioned to ascertain events.

"Once this interrogation process is completed over the next few hours arrangements will be made to send the passengers and the crew members back to Libya with another Afriqiyah aircraft."

Media caption,
A number of passengers have left the plane at Malta International Airport

Shortly before the incident drew to an end, one man emerged from the plane briefly and stood on the plane steps waving a green, Gaddafi-era flag - adding support to earlier suggestions they were loyalists to the former leader, killed in 2011.

Taher Siala, the foreign minister of Libya's internationally backed Government of National Accord, said the hijackers wanted to set up a pro-Gaddafi political party.

Airport security in Libya: Rana Jawad, BBC North Africa correspondent, Tunis

Airport security in Libya is as lax and chaotic as the country's' politics. Various armed groups who do not have any particular allegiance to any Libyan administration control them all.

Over the years there have been several incidents that passengers have become accustomed to, which often go unreported. This includes planes being delayed because rival armed groups drive up the runway, or even temporarily board them if they have a particular demand or a personal axe to grind.

The capital's main airport was burned down during the 2014 rival militia clashes to control it.

Libyans already have trouble flying out of their own country, and cannot travel direct to any European country. European airspace has been closed to all flights from Libya for over two years. The latest incident will undoubtedly dash any hopes that a change in that reality will take place any time soon.

One of the hijackers told a Libyan television station: "We took this measure to declare and promote our new party."

Initial information had suggested the hijackers were trying to claim political asylum in Malta, the mayor of Sabha, Colonel Hamed al-Khayali, told the BBC.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
An Afriqiyah Airways plane stands on the tarmac at Malta International airport as an unidentified man waves a flag

The incident began after the plane took off from Sabha at 11:10 local time (08:10 GMT), landing in Malta two hours and 20 minutes later.

Mr Muscat said the passenger list included 82 men, 28 women and one baby.

Col Khayali said security at Tmenhant was poor, with a distance of 5km (3.1 miles) travel between the airport building and planes.

"That is an open space and it is possible that along that route something was smuggled on board," he said.

Malta International Airport was closed and all flights were diverted while the incident was on-going.

Image source, Reuters

Libya has been in a state of chaos since the 2011 overthrow of Gaddafi, who had ruled the country since 1969.

His removal left warring militias battling for control of different parts of the country, with so-called Islamic State (IS) taking control of areas.

Forces loyal to a national unity government, backed by the UN, recently took control of the coastal city of Sirte, which had been a bastion for IS since June 2015.

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