'Unstable' man behind EgyptAir hijack

  • 30/03/2016
The hijacker claimed to have explosives in his belt and forced the pilot to fly to Cyprus (AAP)
The hijacker claimed to have explosives in his belt and forced the pilot to fly to Cyprus (AAP)

By Menelaos Hadjicostis and Maggie Michael

A man described as "psychologically unstable" hijacked a flight from Egypt to Cyprus and threatened to blow it up; his explosives turned out to be fake, and he surrendered with all passengers released unharmed after a bizarre six-hour stand-off.

Authorities characterised the commandeering of the EgyptAir jetliner not as an act of terrorism but more like a "family feud" with his former wife.

There was praise for the EgyptAir flight crew as the drama ended peacefully on the tarmac of Larnaca airport with the surrender of a man identified as Seif Eddin Mustafa, 59.

EgyptAir Flight 181 took off on Tuesday (local time) from the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria for a 30-minute hop to Cairo with at least 72 people aboard, Cyprus police said, including about two dozen foreigners.

At some point, the hijacker claimed to have explosives in his belt and forced the pilot to fly the Airbus 320 to Cyprus, Egyptian authorities said.

Egyptian passenger Farah el-Dabani told the Dubai-based Al-Arabiyah TV network the hijacker was seated in the back of the aircraft and it was the crew who told passengers the plane was being hijacked.

"There was panic at the beginning, but the crew told us to be quiet. They did a good job to keep us all quiet so the hijacker does not do anything rash," she said in a telephone interview.

After the jet landed in Larnaca about 9am, the hijacker asked to speak to his Cypriot ex-wife, who was brought to the airport, and he sent out a letter from the aircraft to give to her, Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides said.

Most of the passengers were freed, and they calmly walked down a set of stairs from the plane, carrying their hand luggage and boarding a bus. But he kept on board seven people: four members of the flight crew and three passengers.

Mustafa later asked to speak to European Union representatives, and among his demands were the release of female inmates held in Egyptian prisons.

"It was one demand he made, then dropped it and made another," Kasoulides said. "His demands made no sense or were too incoherent to be taken seriously."

From the start, "it was clear that this wasn't an act of terrorism", he added.

"Despite the fact that the individual appeared to be dangerous in terms of his behaviour, we understood that this was a psychologically unstable person," he said.

Hussein Abdelkarim Tantaway Mubarak, Egypt's ambassador to Cyprus, said the whole affair "looks like it was a family feud".

"As far as I know, I think he has a family problem, probably with members of his family, probably his ex-wife or something," Mubarak added.

A Cypriot police official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the hijacker and his wife were divorced in 1994, and the couple had four children.

The hijacker eventually realised there was "no chance" any of his demands would be met, Kasoulides said, and he left the plane, where he was immediately arrested by anti-terrorism police. The belt of explosives turned out to be "telephone cases" made to look like they were explosives.

Just minutes before the arrest, several people were seen also getting off the aircraft, and a crew member -- later identified as Ahmed el-Qaddah -- climbed out of the cockpit window and slid down the side of the plane in accordance with his training for such emergencies.

Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades said the hijacking was "not something that has to do with terrorism."

Anastasiades, appearing alongside European Parliament president Martin Schulz in Nicosia, was asked by reporters whether he could confirm that the incident was about a woman.

"Always, there is a woman," he replied, drawing laughter.

The flight crew and passengers who returned to Cairo on Tuesday night broke into tears while hugging and kissing their waiting families.

Mustafa is to appear in court Wednesday, where authorities will ask that he be held on a number of unspecified charges, said police spokesman Andreas Angelides.