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 Agence France-Presse 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 (5:50 am Manila time), 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. Egypt’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 hijacker” had resulted in “the release of all the passengers, except the crew and four foreigners.”
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.
“He had no gun or anything. We don’t know yet whether his [explosives]belt is real but for the safety of passengers we are dealing with it as real,” Fathy said.
Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades told reporters the incident appeared to be motivated by personal reasons.
“The hijacking is not terrorism-related,” 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: “Always there is a woman.”
Cyprus’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 200 meters (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 island’s western edge.
The Cyprus foreign ministry said “crisis management plans” had been put in place and that the country’s National Crisis Center 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 Egypt’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 London’s Stansted airport, where the hijackers gave themselves up.