Saturday 3 December 2016

No Irish passenger on board as 'hijacker' who diverted EgyptAir flight to Cyprus 'wore fake suicide vest'

* No passenger was travelling on an Irish passport - Dept of Foreign Affairs
* Domestic flight in Egypt hijacked
* Hijacker identified as Seif Eldin Mustafa
* Hostage situation ends after six hours

Independent.ie Newsdesk and Agencies

Published 29/03/2016 | 07:21

A man climbs out of the cockpit window of the hijacked Egyptair Airbus A320 at Larnaca Airport in Larnaca, Cyprus. Reuters/ Yiannis Kourtoglou
A man climbs out of the cockpit window of the hijacked Egyptair Airbus A320 at Larnaca Airport in Larnaca, Cyprus. Reuters/ Yiannis Kourtoglou
Unidentified people leave the hijacked Egyptair Airbus A320 at Larnaca Airport in Larnaca, Cyprus. Reuters/ Yiannis Kourtoglou
A man leaves the hijacked Egyptair Airbus A320 at Larnaca Airport in Larnaca, Cyprus. Reuters/Yiannis Kourtoglou
Passengers and crew leave the hijacked Egyptair Airbus A320 at Larnaca Airport in Larnaca, Cyprus
A passenger leaves a hijacked EgyptAir aircraft after landing at Larnaca Airport in Cyprus. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
A special investigator makes a signal to a passenger, or crew member, who leaves the hijacked aircraft of Egyptair at Larnaca airport. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
Passengers, or crew members, leave the hijacked aircraft of Egyptair at Larnaca airport. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
A passenger leaves a hijacked EgyptAir aircraft after landing at Larnaca Airport in Cyprus. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
Egypt's Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathy speaks during a news conference after an EgyptAir Airbus 320 plane was hijacked to Cyprus, in Cairo, Egypt. Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
A policeman stands guard at Larnaca Airport near a hijacked Egyptair A320 , March 29, 2016. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Police stand guard at Larnaca Airport near a hijacked Egyptair Airbus A320 , March 29, 2016. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou
A hijacked Egyptair Airbus A320 airbus stands on the runway at Larnaca Airport in Larnaca, Cyprus , March 29, 2016. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou
An official boards a hijacked Egyptair A320 Airbus at Larnaca Airport in Larnaca, Cyprus, March 29, 2016.REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou
Screen grabbed image taken from Flightradar24 of EgyptAir plane MS181 which has landed in Cyprus after being hijacked while flying from Alexandria to Cairo, officials said. Flightradar24/PA Wire

An alleged hijacker who forced an Egyptian plane to divert to Cyprus and took passengers and crew hostage was wearing a fake suicide vest, officials have confirmed.

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The passengers and crew on EgyptAir flight MS181 were freed and unharmed, and the hijacker, named as Seif Eldin Mustafa, was arrested after giving himself up.

Cyprus' Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed the identity of the man this morning.

Some 81 people were on board the plane, which landed in Larnaca airport in Cyprus less than an hour after takeoff at 8am local time. The plane, an EgyptAir domestic flight, was travelling from Alexandria to Cairo.

German newspaper Bild earlier reported that an Irishman was on board.

However, the Department of Foreign Affairs said this evening that none of the passengers were carrying an Irish passport.

Minister Charlie Flanagan said he was "glad to see a peaceful resolution" to the hijacking at Larnaca airport earlier today.

"In the event, my department did not receive any request for consular assistance and, as far as I am aware, none of the passengers was travelling on an Irish passport.”

Police stand guard at Larnaca Airport near a hijacked Egyptair Airbus A320 , March 29, 2016. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou
Police stand guard at Larnaca Airport near a hijacked Egyptair Airbus A320 , March 29, 2016. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

A statement from the Egyptian Civil Aviation Ministry statement said the foreigners on board included eight Americans, four Britons, four Dutch, two Belgians, a French national, an Italian, two Greeks and one Syrian. Three other foreigners could not be identified.

After the aircraft landed at Larnaca airport, negotiations began and everyone onboard was freed except three passengers and four crew, Egypt's Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fethy said.

Screen grabbed image taken from Flightradar24 of EgyptAir plane MS181 which has landed in Cyprus after being hijacked while flying from Alexandria to Cairo, officials said. Flightradar24/PA Wire
Screen grabbed image taken from Flightradar24 of EgyptAir plane MS181 which has landed in Cyprus after being hijacked while flying from Alexandria to Cairo, officials said. Flightradar24/PA Wire

Soon after his comments, Cypriot television footage showed several people leaving the plane via the stairs and another man climbing out of the cockpit window and running off.

The hijacker then surrendered to authorities.

"Its over," the Cypriot foreign ministry said in a tweet.

Cypriot authorities have determined that the belt worn by Seif Eldin Mustafa did not contain explosives, Egypt's Civil Aviation Ministry said in a statement.

"Security in Cyprus confirmed that the explosive belt worn by the man who hijacked the plane was fake," it said.

At around 1.30pm local time police expanded the security cordon around the aircraft, Sky News has reported. Police ordered the evacuation of a beach area over the airport perimeter fence and the closure of its seafront bars and restaurants.

Later, one person was seen climbing out of the EgyptAir cockpit window while other people were seen walking off the plane and were led away by security.

Egypt minister for Civil Aviation Sherif Fathy said the hijacker had demanded that the plane land in either Turkey or Cyprus.

"He had no gun or anything. We don't know yet whether his (explosives) belt is real but for the safety of passengers we are dealing with it as real," he said.

Citing security sources, Cypriot state media reported that the motives of the hijacker appeared personal, and had asked to contact his ex wife, who lives in Cyprus.

"It is not something which has to do with terrorism," Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades told reporters.

"What we have clarified ... is that it's not about terrorism. It appears to be a person who is unstable, in an unstable psychological state and the issue is being handled accordingly," foreign ministry official Alexandros Zenon told journalists.

Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said authorities would question the hijacker to ascertain his true motives, which remained a mystery.

"At some moments he asked to meet with a representative of the European Union and at other points he asked to go to another airport but there was nothing specific," he said.

Earlier this morning, an Egyptian foreign ministry official said: "He's not a terrorist, he's an idiot," after it was reported that the hijacker of Flight MS181 appears to have seized the plane as part of a bizarre dispute with his ex-wife.

An official with flight-tracking website FlightRadar24 said the plane showed no immediate signs of distress. The flight between Alexandria and Cairo normally takes about 30 minutes.

It has been reported that a woman, believed to be the hijacker's ex-wife,  travelled to Larnaca airport to meet him during the situation.

Cyprus's Sigma television has reported that the woman was brought to the airport from her home village of Oroklini, accompanied by a young child, according to AFP.

Cypriot media has reported that the man wanted a four-page letter delivered to his ex-wife, and that he also asked for female prisoners in Egypt to be released.

Meanwhile, the departure of a New York-bound EgyptAir flight was delayed due to security fears related to this morning's hijacking, according to security sources.

Earlier the Cyprus state broadcaster reported that the hijacker had demanded the release of female prisoners in Egypt, where the government is facing an Islamist militant insurgency based in the Sinai Peninsula.

Footage released this morning and aired on Sky News showed released passengers making their way down the steps and into a waiting bus on the runway.

EgyptAir says those concerned within Egypt could call their emergency centre at 0800 77 77 000, while those living abroad can call +20 2 259 893 2029.

The incident raises more questions about security at Egyptian airports, five months after a Russian aircraft crashed over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula minutes after it took off from Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

All 224 people on board were killed in the crash. Russia later said an explosive device brought down the aircraft and the extremist Islamic State group took responsibility.

Meanwhile in 1985, TurkeyAir was hit by a hijacking when one of its planes was taken over by the terrorist group Abu Nidal Organisation.

EgyptAir Flight 648, a Boeing 737-200, was hijacked on its way to Cairo from Athens and diverted to Malta where it landed. Egyptian troops raided the plane and 60 people were killed, including two of the three Palestinian hijackers.

In 1978, another incident involved Egyptians, planes and Larnaca airport.

The incident arose when two Palestinians assassinated an Egyptian government minister at his hotel in Nicosia. The assailants took hostages and drove to the airport, where they boarded a plane with them. They later returned to Cyprus, where they had an hours-long standoff until an Egyptian C-130 carrying commandos landed at Larnaca airport.

The commandos attempted to storm the Cyprus Airways jet, but were fired upon by Cypriot troops. Many were killed. The Palestinians eventually surrendered. They were arrested, sentenced and released years later.

The incident poisoned Egypt's relations with Cyprus for years. Relations eventually improved, but it was Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, in office since June 2014, who has forged close ties with Cyprus. El-Sissi and Anastasiades frequently confer in person or on the phone.

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