Reports are surfacing of a possible hijacking situation onboard an Afriqiyah Airways jet. The Airbus A320 departed from the Libyan city of Sebha at 10:10 am Friday local time bound for Tripoli but has been forced to divert to Malta.
Initial reports suggest that the plane is carrying 111 passengers and 7 crew members. This is understood to include 82 men, 28 women and an infant. All passengers are believed to be Libyan nationals. Times of Malta have reported that there are two suspected hijackers onboard the aircraft who claim to be in possession of a hand grenade.
The hijackers have announced that they are willing to release all passengers aside from the crew if authorities comply with their demands. While the hijackers have yet to make these demands known, it is understood they are Gaddafi loyalists from the Al Fatah Al Gadida group. Those loyal to the Gaddafi regime have been held responsible for much of the ongoing violence in Libya since the dictator was overthrown in 2011.
Times of Malta have reported that pilots of the aircraft attempted to contact Libyan air traffic control in an attempt to land the plane in Tripoli as intended, however the hijackers refused.
Prime Minister of Malta Joseph Muscat has tweeted of the situation.
A spokesperson for Prime Minister Muscat has advised the Minister has conducted talks with Libyan Prime Minister Faez al Serraj over the handling of the situation.
According to sources at the scene in Malta, the aircraft has landed safely and emergency services including military personnel have been dispatched and have stationed themselves several hundred meters away from the plane. The plane’s engines are reported to be still running 45 minutes after it landed. Malta International Airport have confirmed on Twitter that there has been an “unlawful interference” at the airport.
MIA confirms there is an unlawful interference at the airport.Emergency teams dispatched.Visit https://t.co/Lf8i8e8s6L for flight info.— Maltairport (@Maltairport) December 23, 2016
According to sources at the scene, women and children began to disembark the aircraft at 1:50 pm local time. The first busload of passengers is reported to have reached the terminal. After previously diverting or cancelling all inbound and outbound flights at Malta International Airport, the Times of Malta has reported that airport operations have resumed. While there are significant delays for outbound flights, aircraft that had previously diverted to Sicily and Catania in Italy have begun to return to Malta.
While it is understood that the Libyan transport minister and high up Maltese officials were holding negotiations with the hijackers, at this stage the outcome is unclear.
The mayor of Sebha, Col Al-Khayali has spoken to media confirming the details of the hijacking.
“It was hijacked and investigations are continuing to establish how any explosives or weapons made it on board.”
Al-Khayali admitted that there is poor security at Sebha’s Tmenhant military airport where the flight departed, with a distance of 3.1 miles (5 km) between airport buildings and aircraft.
This incident marks the first significant hijacking event to strike Malta since 62 people were killed in a bloody shootout on a hijacked EgyptAir plane in 1985. The casualties were the result of a 24 hour standoff between the hijackers and officials with the Egyptian military eventually making the decision to storm the aircraft.
More on this story as it develops.
[Featured Image by Jonathan Borg/AP Images]