CAIRO — Farrah El Dibany thought something was odd. Her Tuesday EgyptAir flight was taking too long to get from Alexandria to Cairo, the plane was headed out over the Mediterranean Sea, and then, crew members began taking passengers’ passports.
“When you fly to Cairo, you don’t cross the sea,” she said. “Then one of the cabin crew told us, ‘We are hijacked. We’re being hijacked.’ There was a lot of panic and crying on the plane. They didn’t tell us anything more. They didn’t say what he wants or where we’re heading, nothing. We were just kidnapped.”
El Dibany’s flight had been hijacked by a man who officials described as “unstable” after he held the passengers and crew hostage with a fake explosive belt, forcing the plane to divert to Cyprus — apparently over issues involving his ex-wife, a Cypriot. He also has a criminal record,
“It was very horrifying to be in this situation,” El Dibany said.
The incident ended relatively peacefully Tuesday when the plane’s crew and passengers left the aircraft and authorities took the hijacker into custody.
“The hijacker has just been arrested,” Cyprus government spokesman Nikos Christodoulides said on Twitter, adding a few minutes later, “All passengers and crew are safe.”
Cyprus state television showed video of the hijacker, wearing a white shirt, being led away by a phalanx of police. Presidential spokesman Alaa Yousuf identified the Egyptian man as Seif El Din Mustafa.
An early report that the hijacker was armed with explosives was false, said Alexandros Zinon, permanent secretary for the Cypriot Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Shortly before news of the arrest, video of the aircraft, which was parked on the tarmac at Cyprus’ Larnaca International Airport, showed people leaving the plane, one through a cockpit window.
The incident began when Mustafa allegedly hijacked the EgyptAir flight because of his ex-wife, officials said Tuesday. The hijacking was not related to terrorism, a spokesman for the Cyprus Transport Ministry said.
The hijacker was “unstable,” Homer Mavrommatis, director of the Cyprus Ministry of Foreign Affairs Crisis Management Center, told CNN. Egyptian authorities negotiated with him, but Mavrommatis said his motivation was not clear.
“He kept on changing his mind and asking for different things,” Mavrommatis said.
Zinon also said the hijacker was unstable. One of his demands was that the plane be refueled so that he could travel to Istanbul, which was rejected, Zinon said. Authorities did, however, arrange for him to speak to his ex-wife, Mavrommatis said.
Mustafa is now being questioned by Cypriot authorities, who will levy charges against him, Zinon said. Cyprus has yet to receive an extradition request, he said.
This is not Mustafa’s first brush with the law, Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. According to a security source, the 58-year-old has a criminal record that includes fraud, fake identity, theft and drug charges, the ministry said.
The Airbus 320 was carrying 70 people: 55 passengers, including the hijacker, seven crew members and, because it was a connecting flight, an additional eight crew members, according to EgyptAir’s Dina El Foly. Officials said earlier that as many as 82 people were on the plane.
Many of the passengers and crew were released during the early stages of the ordeal, Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry said.
‘There was a bit of chaos’
El Dibany told CNN in a phone interview that crew members didn’t explain at first why they were collecting passports, and the captain never gave an official explanation.
“They just said that there was a problem and, ‘Please don’t ask,’ ” she said.
After the cabin crew told passengers “in a very calm voice” that the plane had been hijacked, “some women started crying, and there was a bit of chaos.”
El Dibany said she was at the front of the plane and saw Mustafa from afar. The hijacker was behind a curtain in the cabin area at the back of the plane most of the time. He spoke only to the crew, she said.
Eventually, the plane landed in Cyprus, where it sat for what El Dibany estimates was at least 45 minutes before Mustafa said the women and children on board could leave, she said.
“About 20 minutes later, he said, ‘All the Egyptians can leave,’ and then at some point they got us a bus and we got off the plane, except some of the foreigners, non-Egyptians,” said El Dibany. “So we left on the bus and they brought us to someplace safe.”
She applauded how the crew “very professionally” handled the harrowing experience.
“They were keeping everyone calm,” she said. “They weren’t panicking. They were in control.”
Threat of explosives
EgyptAir Flight 181 should have been a short one; it usually takes less than an hour to fly from Alexandria to the Egyptian capital.
But during the flight, Mustafa falsely claimed that he had an explosive belt, forcing the plane to turn away from its destination and toward Cyprus, pilot Omar El Gamal said, according to the Egyptian Civil Aviation Ministry.
“Pilots will have a special signal they can use to airport traffic control,” said Tom Ballentyne, chief correspondent for Oriental Aviation. “It might be a code word or a signal they can use that will alert air traffic control that there is problem.”
Officials initially didn’t know whether the hijacker really had an explosive belt, but they had no choice but to take the threat seriously, Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathy Ateyya said. Later, Mavrommatis said, it became clear when the hijacker gave himself up that he was not wearing explosives.
What the pilots and crew might have thought were explosives turned out to be mobile phone cases, Zinon said. Though it didn’t elaborate, Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement saying Mustafa used personal items to create the impression that he had an explosive vest, but the items he used had already passed through an airport X-ray machine and were deemed safe.
Video released by Egypt’s Interior Ministry shows Mustafa receiving a pat-down at the Alexandria airport before passing through security without incident.
‘Old-fashioned type of terrorism’
The hijacking was “a more old-fashioned type of terrorism,” said Sajjan Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation London, explaining that it was rare for such negotiations to take place.
Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry said the plane’s foreign passengers included eight Americans, four Dutch, two Belgians, four Britons, one Syrian, one French and one Italian. Mavrommatis said there were also two Greek nationals on board, one of them the orthodox archbishop of Johannesburg.
All flights into Larnaca airport were briefly diverted to Paphos International Airport on the southwest coast of the island, the Cyprus Civil Aviation Authority said. A flight carrying passengers of the hijacked plane was scheduled to take off for Cairo on Tuesday night.
Questionable air security
The hijacking was the latest incident to raise concerns about security at Egypt’s airports.
In October, Metrojet Flight 9268 — taking off from Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh airport — was downed in the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people on board. ISIS claimed responsibility, saying it breached security and smuggled a bomb on board.
“Ever since the Metrojet plane was blown up, it has been confirmed that there are lapses in Egyptian security,” Gohel said.
Since then, Egypt has promised it would beef up security at airports across the country. Egypt insists that airports are safe and says tourists should come back.
How tourists respond to this latest incident remains uncertain.
All domestic and international fights at Egyptian airports are proceeding according to schedule, with minor delays because of heightened security, the Civil Aviation Ministry said in statement.
“Flights to and from Larnaca airport have resumed and are now back to normal. All arrival and departures are back to normal,” said Demetrius Mitrokanallos with the airport’s passenger terminal services.