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23 Dec, 2016 10:57

#Afriqiyah hostage crisis: Hijackers surrender in Malta, all 118 on board released (PHOTOS)

All passengers and crew have been released from the Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 in Malta, after hijackers from the pro-Gaddafi group Al Fatah Al Gadida surrendered and exited the Libyan plane.

LIVE UPDATES: Hijackers release passengers, arrested by authorities

"Hijackers surrendered, searched and taken in custody," tweeted Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat after a protracted hostage situation.

"The two hijackers have been detained in custody and interrogations are ongoing," Muscat said in a follow-up press conference, adding that "the rest of the crew and passengers are also being questioned to ascertain events."

It's understood the plane was making an internal flight in Libya from Sebha to Tripoli before it was diverted to Malta International Airport, where it landed at 11.30 am local time. Armed soldiers then surrounded it on the runway.

"The pilot reported to the control tower in Tripoli that they were being hijacked, then they lost communication with him,” a security official from Mitiga airport in Libya told Reuters. “The pilot tried very hard to have them land at the correct destination but they refused."

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat confirmed in a series of tweets the gradual release of the 118 passengers and crew from the plane, before the pair eventually surrendered almost four hours later.

Described as “pro-Gaddafi,” the hijackers are believed to be in their mid-20s, from the Tebu ethnic group, which is present in southern Libya, according to Libyan MP Hadi al-Saghir who spoke to Reuters.

The pair have been named as Mosa Ali Shaha Gandio and Ahmed Ali, who Muscat described as being “probably of Libyan nationality."

Muscat confirmed the hijackers handed over a hand grenade and a pistol as part of their surrender, while a follow-up search by the armed forces resulted in the discovery of a second pistol.

Initial forensic exams found the weapons were replicas, according to Muscat.

One of the hijackers claimed to be a leader of a "pro-Gaddafi party," according to Libyan TV. Earlier, Al-Saghir told reporters the pair were demanding the creation of such a party.

The mayor of Sabha, Colonel Hamed al-Khayali, told the BBC that the hijackers were seeking political asylum in Malta.

Muscat told reporters, however, that no demands were made during negotiations with the hijackers, and authorities also refused the men's requests for peace negotiators to board the plane.

“Informed of potential hijack situation of a Libya internal flight diverted to Malta. Security and emergency operations standing by,” Muscat tweeted earlier on Friday, adding in a second tweet that "security and emergency services [are] coordinating operations"

The prime minister also confirmed that there were 111 passengers on board, 82 males, 28 females and one infant, plus six crew.

Airport authorities in Malta described the incident as an “unlawful interference” and, with “operations” now returning to normal.

Malta’s President Marie-Louise Coleiro tweeted to appeal “for everyone to remain calm and follow official updates" as the situation unfolded.

Opposition party leader Simon Busuttil, described the incident as a “grave concern.”

“My full cooperation to Govt to protect Malta security and the safety of passengers,” he wrote.