Distraught ex-husband arrested in Cyprus after hijacking EgyptAir plane

Cyprus president Nicos Anastasiades said the hijacking was “not something that has to do with terrorism” and a government official said the man “seems [to be] in love.”

A man believed to be the hijacker of the EgyptAir A320, which was diverted to Cyprus, leaves the plane before surrendering to security forces after a six-hour standoff on the tarmac at Larnaca airport on March 29, 2016. George Michaek/AFP
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LARNACA // A distraught ex-husband sparked an international security alert on Tuesday when he hijacked a plane bound for Cairo and forced it to divert to Cyprus.

Seif Eldin Mostafa, an Egyptian, claimed to be wearing an explosive belt, and demanded to see his Cypriot ex-wife, with whom he has children.

The incident ended after a six-hour stand-off at Larnaca airport when he gave himself up and was arrested.

“He’s not a terrorist,” an official at Egypt’s ministry of foreign affairs said. “He’s an idiot. Terrorists are crazy but they aren’t stupid. This guy is.”

After searching the hijacker and sending sniffer dogs into the plane, Cypriot police said no explosives had been found.

Most of the 55 passengers had been released soon after the plane landed but some escaped only minutes before the hijacker surrendered, including one man who climbed out through a cockpit window.

The Cypriot foreign ministry’s permanent secretary, Alexandros Zenon, said the hijacking was “the individual action of a person who is psychologically unstable”.

Cyprus’s president, Nicos Anastasiades, said the incident appeared to be motivated by personal reasons. “The hijacking is not terrorism-related,” he said.

When he was asked about the hijacker’s demand to see a Cypriot woman, Mr Anastasiades laughed and said: “Always there is a woman.”

The EgyptAir Airbus A320 had been flying from the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria to Cairo.

The passengers were mostly Egyptian but also included eight Americans, four Dutch citizens, four Britons and a French citizen.

At 8.30am the hijacker contacted air traffic control and threatened to detonate an explosives belt on the plane unless it was diverted, and the aircraft landed at Larnaca 20 minutes later.

Authorities closed the airport, the main entry point for tourists, and evacuated the nearby Makenzy beach as hostage negotiators began talking to the hijacker. Incoming flights were diverted to Paphos on the island’s western edge.

The hijacker made a series of rambling demands, gave hostage negotiators the name of a woman who lives in Cyprus and asked them to give her a letter, which he dropped on the tarmac next to the plane.

Later the first batch of passengers calmly walked off the plane down a set of stairs, carrying their hand luggage, and boarded a bus parked to the side.

The captain, a co-pilot, a flight attendant, a security guard and three passengers remained on board. They later left the aircraft, some descending the steps from the plane and one clambering out of a cockpit window and dropping to the ground.

The hijacker then emerged, walked across the tarmac and raised his hands to two waiting counter-terrorism officers. They laid him on the ground and searched him for about two minutes before taking him away.

At 2.43pm, the Cypriot government said: “The hijacker has just been arrested.”

Officials in both Cyprus and Egypt then confirmed that all crew and passengers were safe, and the airport later reopened.

Concerns were raised about security at Egyptian airports after a Russian airliner was downed on October 31 over the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people on board. ISIL claimed to have smuggled a bomb on board the plane.

In December, Egypt hired global consultancy Control Risks to review the security at the country’s airports.

In a joint press conference at the time, tourism minister Hisham Zazou, civil aviation minister Hossam Kamal and Control Risks regional chief executive Andreas Carleton-Smith said they would work to restore confidence in the country’s security and its tourism industry, a vital sector for Egypt’s struggling economy.

A Control Risks spokesperson at their office in Dubai declined to comment on the hijacking on Tuesday.

Egypt’s revenue from tourism has fallen by almost half from the US$12.5 billion (Dh44.9bn) it earned before the country’s 2011 uprising of 2011.

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 A310 was hijacked by seven Iraqis between Khartoum and Amman with 199 people on board. After a stopover in Larnaca it flew on to London Stansted airport, where the hijackers gave themselves up.

In 1988, a Kuwait Airways flight hijacked en route from Bangkok to Kuwait was diverted to Iran’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.

* Agence France-Presse with additional reporting by Shereen Al Gazzar