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Hijack drama ends in Cyprus with arrest of ‘unstable’ man

A man exits through a cockpit window of a hijacked EgyptAir aircraft at Larnaca airport in Cyprus on Tuesday. (Petros Karadjias / Associated Press)
Maggie Michael Associated Press

LARNACA, Cyprus – A man described as “psychologically unstable” hijacked a flight Tuesday from Egypt to Cyprus and threatened to blow it up. His explosives turned out to be fake, and he surrendered with all passengers released unharmed after a bizarre six-hour standoff.

As more became known about the motive of the 59-year-old Egyptian who was taken into custody, authorities characterized the commandeering of the EgyptAir jetliner not as an act of terrorism but more like a “family feud” with his former wife.

The aviation drama ended peacefully on the tarmac of Larnaca airport on the island nation’s southern coast with the surrender of a man identified by Cypriot and Egyptian authorities as Seif Eddin Mustafa.

The incident was likely to renew concerns about Egyptian airport security months after a Russian passenger plane was blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in a bombing claimed by the Islamic State group.

But Egyptian officials stressed that their security measures were not to blame, and there was praise for the EgyptAir flight crew. Pilot Amr Gamal told the Associated Press: “We rescued all the people and the man got arrested.”

EgyptAir Flight 181 took off from the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria for a 30-minute hop to Cairo with at least 72 people aboard, Cyprus police said, including about two dozen foreigners.

At some point, the hijacker claimed to have explosives in his belt and forced the pilot to fly the Airbus 320 to Cyprus, Egyptian authorities said.

Egyptian passenger Farah el-Dabani told the Dubai-based Al-Arabiyah TV network that the hijacker was seated in the back of the aircraft, and it was the crew who told passengers the plane was being hijacked.

After the jet landed in Larnaca about 9 a.m., the hijacker asked to speak to his Cypriot ex-wife, who was brought to the airport, and he sent out a letter from the aircraft to give to her, Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides said.

The foreigners on board included eight Americans, four Britons, four Dutch, two Belgians, a French national, an Italian, two Greeks and one Syrian, the Egyptian Civil Aviation Ministry said. The nationalities of three other foreigners could not be determined immediately.

Most of the passengers were freed, and they calmly walked down a set of stairs from the plane, carrying their hand luggage and boarding a bus. But the hijacker kept on board seven people: four members of the flight crew and three passengers.

Mustafa later asked to speak to European Union representatives, and among his demands were the release of female inmates held in Egyptian prisons.

The hijacker eventually realized there was “no chance” any of his demands would be met, Kasoulides said, and he left the plane, where he was immediately arrested by anti-terrorism police. The belt of explosives turned out to be “telephone cases” made to look like they were explosives.

Just minutes before the arrest, several people were seen also getting off the aircraft, and a crew member – later identified as Ahmed el-Qaddah – climbed out of the cockpit window and slid down the side of the plane in accordance with his training.

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades said the hijacking was “not something that has to do with terrorism.”