LARNACA (Cyprus) – A hijacker seized an Egyptian airliner and forced it to land in Cyprus on Tuesday, but nearly all of the passengers were quickly released and officials said the incident was not linked to terrorism.
A government source told AFP the hijacker had demanded to see a Cypriot woman, his estranged lover who lives on the island.
The EgyptAir plane landed at the airport in the southern coastal city of Larnaca at 8.50 am local time (0550 GMT), after the hijacker had contacted the control tower 20 minutes earlier to demand the diversion.
Egyptian civil aviation said he had threatened to detonate an explosives belt on the Airbus A-320, which had been headed from the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria to Cairo.
Most of the passengers were allowed to disembark after the plane landed.
Egyptâ€™s aviation minister Sherif Fathy told a press conference that the captain, a co-pilot, an air hostess and a security guard remained on board, along with three passengers.
EgyptAir had previously said that negotiations with the hijackerâ€ had resulted in â€œthe release of all the passengers, except the crew and four foreigners.â€
An AFP correspondent later saw at least seven people descend from the aircraft, including some dressed in what appeared to be crew uniforms.
The plane had been carrying 21 foreigners including eight Americans, four Dutch citizens, four Britons and a French citizen, an Egyptian civil aviation ministry statement said.
Fathy said there had been 55 passengers on board the plane and that the hijacker had demanded it land in either Turkey or Cyprus.
â€œHe had no gun or anything. We donâ€™t know yet whether his (explosives) belt is real but for the safety of passengers we are dealing with it as real,â€ Fathy said.
Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades told reporters the incident appeared to be motivated by personal reasons.
â€œThe hijacking is not terrorism-related,â€ he told a joint news conference with the visiting president of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz.
Asked about reports that the hijacker had demanded to see a Cypriot woman, Anastasiades said: â€œAlways there is a woman.â€
– Flights diverted –
Cyprusâ€™s Sigma television reported that the woman had been brought to the airport from her home village of Oroklini, accompanied by a young child.
Cyprus state radio had earlier reported that the man was demanding asylum and had asked for a translator.
A crisis team was deployed to the airport, the main entry point for tourists to the Mediterranean resort island.
The plane was parked on the tarmac away from the new terminal building but just 200m (yards) from a beach where dozens of foreign tourists were out. The aircraft was cordoned off by armed police.
The airport was closed during the crisis with incoming flights diverted to Paphos on the islandâ€™s western edge.
The Cyprus foreign ministry said â€œcrisis management plansâ€ had been put in place and that the countryâ€™s National Crisis Centre had been in contact with Egyptian authorities.
Cyprus government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides said on Twitter that Anastasiades had spoken by telephone with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The incident came after a Russian airliner was downed on October 31 over Egyptâ€™s Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people on board.
The Islamic State group claimed to have smuggled a bomb on board the plane.
Larnaca is no stranger to hostage crises. Several hijacked planes were diverted to the airport in the last few decades.
In August 1996, a Sudan Airways Airbus A-310 was hijacked by seven Iraqis between Khartoum and Amman with 199 people on board.
After a stopover in Larnaca it flew on to Londonâ€™s Stansted airport, where the hijackers gave themselves up.
In 1988, a Kuwait Airways flight hijacked en route from Bangkok to Kuwait was diverted to Iranâ€™s second city Mashhad and later to Larnaca, where hijackers killed two Kuwaiti passengers and dumped their bodies on the tarmac.
In February 1978, an Egyptian commando unit stormed a hijacked Cyprus Airways DC-8 at Larnaca airport, where 15 passengers were being held hostage.
Some 15 Egyptian soldiers were killed and 15 wounded in a firefight with Cypriot forces. All the hostages were freed and the hijackers arrested. â€“ AFP