Valletta: Passengers walked down the steps from a hijacked plane at Malta International Airport on Friday, and Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tweeted that 65 passengers had been freed and a further 44 passengers were being released.
Buses were driven onto the tarmac to carry passengers away, and more releases were expected, with more than 100 passengers and crew reported to have been on board. Television footage showed no signs of struggle or alarm.
An Afriqiyah Airways plane stands on the tarmac at Malta’s Luqa International airport as passengers depart.
The aircraft had been on an internal flight in Libya on Friday morning when it was diverted to Malta, 500 km (300 miles) north of the Libyan coast, after a hijacker told crew he had a hand grenade.
Initial reports said the hijacker had told crew he was “pro-Gaddafi” and that he was willing to let all 111 passengers leave the Airbus A320, but not its seven crew, if his demands were met, the Times of Malta said.
Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed in an uprising in 2011, and the country has been racked by factional violence since.
Hadi al-Saghir said that Abdusalem Mrabit, a fellow member of Libya’s House of Representatives, had told him that the two hijackers were in their mid 20s and were from the Tebu, an ethnic group present in southern Libya from where the plane departed.
Troops took up positions a few hundred metres from the plane as it stood on the tarmac. Several other flights at Malta International Airport were cancelled or diverted.
A senior Libyan security official told Reuters that when the plane was still in flight on Friday morning the pilot told the control tower at Tripoli’s Mitiga airport it had been hijacked.
“The pilot reported to the control tower in Tripoli that they were being hijacked, then they lost communication with him,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The pilot tried very hard to have them land at the correct destination but they refused.”
Large numbers of security officials could be seen at Mitiga airport after news of the hijacking.
The aircraft had been flying from Sebha in southwest Libya to Tripoli for state-owned Afriqiyah Airways, a route that would usually take a little over two hours.
The government of the tiny Mediterranean island, a European Union member, said Muscat had discussed the hijack with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj by phone, and a negotating team had been formed and was at the airport. Britain offered Malta help with dealing with the incident.
The last major hijacking in Malta was in 1985, when Palestinians took over an Egyptair plane. Egyptian commandos stormed the aircraft and dozens of people were killed.