(Adds comments at news conference by PM)
By Chris Scicluna
VALLETTA Dec 23 Hijackers armed with a grenade
and pistols forced an airliner to land in Malta on Friday then
freed all their hostages unharmed and surrendered, after
declaring their loyalty to Libya's late leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Television pictures showed two men being led from the
aircraft in handcuffs. The prime minister of the tiny
Mediterranean island, Joseph Muscat, tweeted "hijackers
surrendered, searched and taken into custody".
The Airbus A320 had been on an internal flight in Libya on
Friday morning when it was diverted to Malta, 500 km (300 miles)
north of the Libyan coast, after a man told the crew he had a
A Libyan television channel reported it had spoken by phone
with a hijacker who described himself as head of a pro-Gaddafi
party. Gaddafi was killed in an uprising in 2011, and Libya has
been racked by factional violence since.
Buses were driven onto the tarmac at Malta International
Airport to carry away 109 passengers, as well as some of the
crew. Television footage showed no signs of struggle or alarm.
After passengers had left the plane, a man briefly appeared
at the top of the steps with a plain green flag resembling that
of Gaddafi's now-defunct state.
Libya's Channel TV station said one hijacker, who gave his
name as Moussa Shaha, had said by phone he was the head of
Al-Fateh Al-Jadid, or The New Al-Fateh. Al-Fateh is the name
that Gaddafi gave to September, the month he staged a coup in
1969, and the word came to signify his coming to power.
In a tweet, the TV station later quoted the hijacker as
saying: "We took this measure to declare and promote our new
STANDOFF ON TARMAC
MP Hadi al-Saghir told Reuters that Abdusalem Mrabit, a
fellow member of Libya's House of Representatives on the plane,
had told him the two hijackers were in their mid-20s and were
from the Tebu ethnic group in southern Libya.
Troops were positioned a few hundred metres (yards) from the
plane as it stood on the tarmac. Several other flights at the
airport were cancelled or diverted.
After the standoff ended peacefully, Muscat told a news
conference there had been talks between Maltese authorities and
the Libyan hijackers.
"We were not willing to negotiate until there was a
surrender," he said. The men had been carrying a grenade and two
pistols and asked for two Maltese negotiators to board the
aircraft, but this was rejected.
"There has been no request for asylum by the hijackers,"
A senior Libyan security official told Reuters that when the
plane was still in flight on Friday morning the pilot told the
control tower at Tripoli's Mitiga airport it had been hijacked.
"Then they lost communication with him," the official said,
speaking on condition of anonymity. "The pilot tried very hard
to have them land at the correct destination but they refused."
The aircraft had been flying from Sebha in southwest Libya
to Tripoli for state-owned Afriqiyah Airways, a trip that would
usually take a little over two hours.
The government of Malta said Prime Minister Muscat had
discussed the hijack with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj
The last major hijacking on the island was in 1985, when
Palestinians took over an Egyptair plane. Egyptian commandos
stormed the aircraft and dozens of people were killed.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli, Ayman
al-Warfalli in Benghazi, Aidan Lewis in Tunis and Robin Pomeroy
and Alison Williams in London; writing by Andrew Roche; editing
by Jeremy Gaunt/Richard Balmforth)