#Afriqiyah hostage crisis: Hijackers surrender in Malta, all 118 on board released (PHOTOS)
"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."
Hijackers surrendered, searched and taken in custody.— Joseph Muscat (@JosephMuscat_JM) December 23, 2016
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.
Final crew members leaving aircraft with hijackers.— Joseph Muscat (@JosephMuscat_JM) December 23, 2016
Further 44 passengers being released.— Joseph Muscat (@JosephMuscat_JM) December 23, 2016
Potentially 2 hijackers and some crew members still on board aircraft.— Joseph Muscat (@JosephMuscat_JM) December 23, 2016
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.
Initial forensic exams now showing weapons used in Afriqiyah hijack are replicas.— Joseph Muscat (@JosephMuscat_JM) December 23, 2016
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.
It has been established that #Afriqiyah flight has 111 passengers on board. 82 males, 28 females, 1 infant.— Joseph Muscat (@JosephMuscat_JM) December 23, 2016
Airport authorities in Malta described the incident as an “unlawful interference” and, with “operations” now returning to normal.
MIA confirms there is an unlawful interference at the airport.Emergency teams dispatched.Visit https://t.co/Lf8i8e8s6L for flight info.— Maltairport (@Maltairport) December 23, 2016
Safety & security of passengers is our top priority. Some flights have been delayed or diverted, but airport operations were resumed. 1/2— Maltairport (@Maltairport) December 23, 2016
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.