'He's not a terrorist... he's an idiot'
Egyptian man hijacks airliner with fake explosive vest and flies to Cyprus - to see ex-wife
Published 30/03/2016 | 02:30
The midair hijacking of an Egyptian passenger plane began in terror but ended in farce yesterday after a hostage-taker wearing a suicide vest turned out to be a delusional ex-husband armed only with empty mobile phone covers.
Seif al-Din Mustafa, a 59-year-old Egyptian man, sparked terror alerts across the planet when he told the cabin crew of EgyptAir flight 181 that he had a bomb and forced the aircraft to make an emergency landing at Cyprus's Larnaca airport.
But over the course of an increasingly strange six hours, he issued a forlorn demand to see his Cypriot former wife and agreed to pose for a photograph with one of his hostages- a British man - before finally surrendering himself to police.
As one Egyptian official summed it up: "He's not a terrorist, he's an idiot."
The drama began before 8am as the half-full EgyptAir flight took off for what should have been a 28-minute hop from Alexandria to Cairo.
From seat 38K at the back of the Airbus A320, Mustafa informed the cabin crew he was strapped with explosives and threatened to bring down the flight if it did not divert to Cyprus.
The seven crew members did their best to calm the 55 passengers, including eight British travellers, as they announced the plane was heading to Larnaca.
They started collecting passports but did not identify the hijacker to the other travellers.
After the plane touched down, Mustafa stood up and stepped behind the curtain at the aircraft's rear galley while the passengers watched anxiously as police sharpshooters gathered around the airport.
Speaking by phone and though a four-page letter written in Arabic, he issued his demand: he wanted to see his former wife, named in the Cypriot press as Marina Paraschou, a 51-year-old with whom he reportedly had four children.
As police raced to collect Marina and a young child from the village of Oroklini and bring them to the airport, Mustafa apparently also demanded to see an EU official, and may have raised the issue of political prisoners in Egypt. It is not clear whether Mustafa was allowed to speak to his ex-wife.
After an hour on the runway, Mustafa released most of his hostages. Only the crew and five Westerners remained onboard, as the atmosphere turned surreal.
Mustafa apparently began to mingle with his captives, his eyes looking glazed behind his spectacles.
Ben Innes (26), a health and safety inspector from Leeds, approached the hijacker and posed with him for a photo, with Mustafa's "suicide vest" - a cloth belt that apparently contained mobile phone covers - on display.
A friend said: "Ben is a wild man and this is totally in character for him. He was a big rugby guy and very into his banter and didn't have much respect for authority."
By now, the authorities in Cyprus and Egypt were clear that they were not dealing with a jihadist.
"The hijacking is not terrorism-related," said Nicos Anastasiades, the Cypriot president. Even as the stand-off continued, Mr Anastasiades could not resist a joke: "Always, there is a woman."
Egyptian officials said Mustafa had a long record of small crimes, such as theft and impersonation, but found no obvious links to terrorism.
He had apparently escaped prison during Egypt's 2011 uprising but gave himself up in exchange for a lighter sentence.
As the hours ticked by, the remaining hostages trickled off the plane, including one pilot who lowered himself from the cockpit window and ran.
Mr Innes was one of the three last hostages seen running across the tarmac moments before Mustafa disembarked with his hands above his head and surrendered to waiting police marksmen just before 1pm.
"It was horrifying to be faced with death, kind of, for an hour and a half," said Farrah el-Dibany, a passenger.
Flights resumed in the evening, but too late for some travellers whose plans had been disrupted.
"Honestly, this is over a woman?" one passenger said. "I'm going to jab her eyes out."
Mustafa is expected to appear in court in Cyprus later in the week and could be extradited back to Egypt, which is sensitive to criticism over its airport security after Isil smuggled a bomb on to an airliner last year. (© Daily Telegraph, London)