Scare averted as Libyan aircraft hijackers release passengers at Malta airport, surrender

All 111 passengers and seven crew members of a hijacked Libyan plane have been released, before the two hijackers also surrendered on Friday afternoon, Malta Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said. The two had hijacked a domestic Afrqiyah Airlines plane on its way to Tripoli from Sabha, and forced it to Malta in the Mediterranean Sea, 500 km away. This resulted in an afternoon of high drama, as the hijackers first released 65 passengers before letting the others go as well.

Muscat tweeted that he had been alerted of a "potential hijack" of a Libyan plane reported to be headed for Malta.

The plane, carrying 118 people, including seven crew members, landed in Malta at 11.32 am local time, Malta Today reported. Maltese media reported that the hijacked plane, flight number 8U209, left Sabha in South West Libya and was scheduled to arrive in Tripoli at 11.20 am, but was instead diverted to the tiny island of Malta. The A320 flight is operated by Afriqiyah Airways.

BBC News reported that all flights in and out of Malta were cancelled. Prime Minister Muscat further tweeted saying that among those onboard, 82 were men, 28 women and one infant:

According to the Times of Malta, an hour after the hijack, the plane was surrounded by Maltese security forces.  The report added that the hijackers, believed to be pro-Gaddafi, are in possession of a hand grenade, while their demands remain unknown.

Malta Today added that all emergency teams have been dispatched to the site. The Malta International Airport called the hijack situation an "unlawful interference" on the airport tarmac.

Earlier in the day, The office of Malta's prime minister Joseph Muscat said the premier spoke to his Libyan counterpart, Fayez Serraj, on the hijacking. Serraj is leading the so-called Presidency Council and National Unity Government, both brokered by the United Nations as part of peace efforts to heal the country's rift and end divisions.

The Maltese government also  confirmed that a negotiating team is on standby at airport awaiting instructions from the prime minister, who is in a meeting with the National Security Committee.

Libya has been in a state of chaos since the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi left warring militias battling for control of different parts of the country. Forces loyal to a fledgling national unity government recently took control of the coastal city of Sirte, which had been a bastion for the Islamic State group since June 2015.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Dec 23, 2016 20:48:24 IST