Hijackers divert Libyan passenger jet to Malta

Friday, December 23, 2016

Two hijackers seized an Afriqiyah Airways jet this morning, diverting it away from its domestic Libyan route to Malta. The men surrendered to Maltese custody.

The aircraft involved, from file.
Image: Pedro Aragão
(CC BY-SA 3.0).

Flight 209, an Airbus A320, was flying from Sabha to Tripoli. Men identified as Suhaha Mussa and Ahmed Alid, armed with what appeared to be a grenade and two pistols, took control of the aircraft. The airline said a proposal to land in Libya was rejected by the hijackers, who took the plane to nearby Malta owing to fuel limits. After landing, the plane's engines were not shut off for around ninety minutes.

Malta International Airport was closed after the arrival. Negotiators and security forces met the plane, carrying 111 passengers and at least six crew, at the airport. The hijackers released the passengers, one of whom was an infant, and most crewmembers before surrendering.

The hijacking appears to be in favour of Libya's deceased, deposed former leader Muammar al-Gaddafi. One hijacker waved a flag from the Gaddafi regime. Libyan news station Channel TV said it spoke by phone to one hijacker, quoting him as saying "We took this measure to declare and promote our new party."

Channel TV reported the man said he had formed a new group called al-Fateh al-Jadid, which means "The New al-Fateh". Al-Gaddafi renamed September as al-Fateh in honour of his September 1969 coup; al-Fateh came to be a term closely associated with him.

Malta International Airport, from file.
Image: William Shewring
(CC0 1.0).

There were reports, including comments by a Libyan minister, the hijackers sought political asylum in Malta, something Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat denied. Muscat, who tweeted throughout today's events, told a press conference the hostages would be questioned over several hours and then flown home by a replacement Afriqiyah Airways plane.

Libyan foreign minister Taher Siala, allied to the Government of National Accord, said the two hijackers intended to form a political party allied to Gaddafi, who died during a 2011 uprising. Gaddafi used the same green flag as displayed by the hijackers from 1977 until his death. One publication in Germany claimed the release of Saif al-Gaddafi was demanded.

The airline operates a twice-weekly Sabha-Tripoli route, on Fridays and Tuesdays. Friday flights depart at 10:10am, and arrive seventy minutes later. Passengers were being freed by 1:50pm in Malta; at 3:50pm the hijackers surrendered. Muscat spoke to Libyan Prime Minister Faez al-Serraj during the incident, according to Muscat's communications chief Kurt Farrugia. Negotiators reportedly included Libya's transport minister, with Maltese efforts led by commander Jeffrey Curmi of the Armed Forces.

Thousands at an anti-Gaddafi rally in 2011.
Image: ليبي صح
(CC0 1.0).

The airport has reopened. At least 44 flights were affected, with nine diverted to Sicily, Italy. There were delays to twenty departures and fifteen arrivals.

Libya suffered a power vacuum since the 2011 fall of al-Gaddafi. The nation, wealthy due to oil reserves, is split amongst competing governments and parliaments, controlled by rival militants. The present internationally-recognised Government of National Accord is the result of United Nations negotiations.

The situation has led to the nation's airports falling under the varying control of numerous armed groups. Libya's main airport was destroyed in 2014 when it caught fire during a battle for its control. Libyan flights are banned from direct entry to European airspace. "Every airport in Libya is poorly secured", according to BBC correspondent Rana Jawad.

Malta has not seen a large-scale hijacking since November 1985, when an EgyptAir plane was diverted there. After a 24-hour standoff Maltese commandos burst on-board to rescue hostages from three hijackers. The ensuing firefight left 62 dead.