Early on Tuesday morning, an EgyptAir flight from Alexandria to Cairo, which had eight Americans on board, was diverted to Cyprus by a would-be suicide bomber whose motives are still unclear. Authorities suspected his bombs were fake, but treated the hijacking seriously in order to avoid loss of life. The hijacker was arrested after giving himself up.
“Our passengers are all well and the crew is all well…. We cannot say this was a terrorist act… he was not a professional,” Egypt’s Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fethy told reporters.
Cypriot officials insisted early on that the incident did not appear related to terrorism, but the state broadcaster in Syria noted that the hijacker had demanded the release of women prisoners in Egypt, suggesting a political motive. After the aircraft landed at Larnaca airport in Cyprus, negotiations began, and everyone on board was freed except for three passengers and four crew, according to Fethy. The plane had 81 people, including 21 foreigners and 15 crew members, when it took off.
Television footage in Cyprus showed several people leaving the plane, some by the stairs and another man climbing out of the cockpit window and running off. The Cypriot foreign ministry tweeted “it’s over” at about 7:40 a.m. Eastern time.
— Cyprus MFA (@CyprusMFA) March 29, 2016
Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail identified the hijacker as an Egyptian national but said his motives remained unclear. Egypt’s official state news agency MENA first named him as Ibrahim Samaha, but later said his name was Seif Eldin Mustafa. The Cypriot Foreign Affairs Ministry also identified him as Mustafa. Here is a picture of the hijacker.
Alexandros Zenon, a foreign ministry official in Cyprus, told reporters that the hijacker appeared to be “unstable.”
“At some points 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,” the Egyptian prime minister said.
Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry said the plane’s pilot, Omar al-Gammal, informed authorities that he was threatened by a passenger who claimed to be wearing a belt with explosives and forced him to divert the plane to Cyprus. Witnesses said the hijacker passed on a letter, written in Arabic, to be given to his ex-wife, who lives in Cyprus.
Despite the peaceful conclusion of the hijacking, it will likely deal yet another blow to Egypt’s tourism industry and hamper efforts to revive an economy hammered by political unrest after the 2011 uprising. Tourism in Egypt has already struggled to revive from the crash of a Russian passenger plane in the Sinai desert last October.