A plane hijacking, a fake suicide belt and a love letter to an ex-wife – all the trappings of drama that gripped the world for a good part of the day Tuesday.
Thankfully, the actionpacked, real-time hijacking of an EgyptAir plane flying from Alexandria to Cairo, which brought out the worst fears of an Islamic State-fueled terrorist attack, ended peacefully when the hijacker gave himself up after forcing the plane to land in Cyprus.
Eighty-one people, including 21 foreigners and 15 crew, were on board the Airbus 320 when it took off from Alexandria en route to Cairo, Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry said in a statement. All were unharmed.
Conflicting theories emerged about the Egyptian hijacker’s motives. A senior Cypriot official said he was psychologically unstable and that the incident did not appear to be terrorism-related.
The Cypriot state broadcaster said he had demanded the release of women prisoners in Egypt.
In the midst of the crisis, witnesses said the hijacker had thrown a letter – written in Arabic – out of the plane at Cyprus’s Larnaca Airport and asked that it be delivered to his Cypriot ex-wife.
After the aircraft landed at Larnaca, negotiations began and everyone on board was freed except three passengers and four crew members, Egypt’s Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fethy said.
Soon afterwards, Cypriot television footage showed several people leaving the plane via the stairs and another man climbing out of the cockpit window and running off.
The hijacker then surrendered to authorities.
Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides said the hijacker had threatened to blow himself up and demanded that the aircraft be refueled and head to Istanbul.
“It looks like he realized his demands would not be met, allowing the last two hostages, Britons, to flee the aircraft. He also tried to leave, running out. He was arrested,” said Kasoulides.
“The explosives on him were examined. They weren’t explosives, but mobile phone covers.”
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called and thanked Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades for efforts in ending the hijacking, Egyptian media reported.
Sisi had closely followed the developments, Egypt’s state news agency MENA reported.
The Israel Air Force scrambled fighter jets after learning of the hijacked civilian airliner to prevent the possibility of an intrusion into Israeli air space, an IDF spokeswoman said. After the hijacked plane landed in Cyprus, the jets returned to base.
“What is beyond doubt is that the attack exposed the fact that Egyptian airports are not secure enough,” Prof. Yoram Meital, chairman of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told The Jerusalem Post.
Following the previous downing of a Russian passenger plane in Sinai in October due to a suspected terrorist bombing, Meital said the episode “is yet another blow to Egypt’s efforts to revive tourism, which has suffered badly over the past five months.”
The tourism sector is a main source of hard currency for the import-dependent country.
Sisi has said the Russian plane was brought down by a terrorist attack, and Islamic State has said it planted a bomb on the aircraft, killing all 224 people on board.
The attack, continued Meital, “exposes Sisi to more internal criticism for failing to deliver stability and to stabilize the economy, which Prime Minister Sherif Ismail described in a gloomy report to the parliament on Sunday.”
Ismail emphasized that the government would need to make “difficult decisions” in implementing its plan to save the economy from further deterioration, Meital said.
“Without internal stability, there is no room for reviving tourism, which plays a key factor in Egypt’s economy,” he added.
The Egypt’s prime minister said the hijacker would be questioned to ascertain his motives.
“At some moments, he asked to meet with a representative of the European Union and at other points he asked to go to another airport, but there was nothing specific,” he said.
Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry said the pilot, Omar al-Gammal, had told authorities that he was threatened by a passenger who claimed to be wearing a suicide explosive belt and forced him to divert the plane to Larnaca.
Reached by telephone, Gammal told Reuters the hijacker seemed “abnormal.”
“I am not in a state to speak,” said the exhausted-sounding pilot, who added that he had been obliged to treat the suicide belt as a serious security threat.
Photographs shown on Egyptian state television showed a middle-aged man on a plane wearing glasses and displaying a white belt with bulging pockets and protruding wires.
Television channels showed video footage of the hijacker, identified as Seif Eldin Mustafa, 59, being searched by security men at Borg al-Arab airport in Alexandria.
Interior Ministry officials said he was expelled from law school and had a long criminal record, including robberies.
Fethy said authorities suspected the suicide belt was not genuine but treated the incident as serious to ensure the safety of all those on board.
“Our passengers are all well and the crew is all well... We cannot say this was a terrorist act... he was not a professional,” he told reporters after the incident.
EgyptAir delayed a New York-bound flight from Cairo onto which some passengers of the hijacked plane had been due to connect. Fethy said it was delayed partly due to a technical issue but also partly as a precaution.
US President Barack Obama was briefed about the hijacking, the White House said, noting the incident did not appear to be linked to terrorism but rather a personal dispute.
The US is concerned about the incident and about the security of the international aviation system, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest noted that there are no direct flights to the US from the airport in Alexandria where the EgyptAir flight originated.
The hijacked plane remained on the tarmac at Larnaca throughout the morning while Cypriot security forces took up positions around the scene.
Passengers on the plane included eight Americans, four Britons, four Dutch, two Belgians, an Italian, a Syrian and a French national, the Civil Aviation Ministry said.
A botched attempt by Egyptian commandos to storm a hijacked airliner at Larnaca Airport led to the disruption of diplomatic relations between Cyprus and Egypt in 1978.