Hijackers who claimed to be armed with grenades took control of a domestic flight in Libya on Friday, threatening to blow up the plane and forcing the pilot to land in Malta with 118 people aboard, officials said.
The two hijackers identified themselves as supporters of deposed Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi, but it was not clear what their demands were, according to Magda Magri Naudi, mayor of the Maltese city of Lija.
“Unless their requests are met, they will blow up the plane,” said Naudi, who has been talking with Maltese and Libyan hostage negotiators.
She said the passengers included 83 men, 28 women and a baby. It was not clear what their nationalities were, she said, or if they were any injured, because “no one has approached the plane.”
As the ordeal progressed, Naudi said 25 female passengers had been let off the plane.
“The situation seems to be under control. We can see more women coming down now,” she said, adding that “we haven’t seen the baby so far.”
She said a man could be seen helping the women disembark, but it was not clear who he was. It was also not clear if the crew was all male, she said.
“From Tripoli, we heard there is member of the Libyan parliament on board as well,” Naudi said.
The Airbus A320 aircraft operated by Afriqiyah Airways departed from Sebha on a domestic flight to Tripoli shortly after 10 a.m. local time but was then diverted when the hijackers threatened the crew, according to Naudi.
“They told them ‘We have grenades and we will explode the airplane if you don’t do what we say,’” she said.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat confirmed the hijacking on Twitter on Friday.
“Security services coordinating operations,” he added shortly before conferring with Libyan Prime Minister Faez al Serraj.
It wasn’t clear how the hijackers managed to get access to the cockpit, but Naudi said the crew of seven were never forced to relinquish the plane’s controls, unlike the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“The captain and the crew managed to land the aircraft themselves and they did not hand it over to the hijackers, not like the hijackers so many years ago in America,” Naudi said.
The plane landed at the Malta airport at 11:30 a.m. where it remained surrounded by security forces.
“There is a meeting at the prime minister’s office where they are trying to coordinate the whole situation,” Naudi said, adding that Brig. Jeffrey Curmi, commander of Malta’s armed forces, was leading a team working with a Libyan minister to negotiate with the hijackers.
The tiny Mediterranean island nation’s airport was closed after the plane’s arrival, with all other flights diverted.
“There are soldiers all over the place, police, paramedics. They’re just awaiting to see what the next step will be,” Naudi said.