A man thought to be strapped with explosives hijacked an EgyptAir plane on Tuesday while flying from the Egyptian Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria to the capital, Cairo.
The airplane later landed at Larnaca airport in Cyprus where all passengers except five foreigners and the crew were allowed to get off the aircraft, according to Egyptian and Cypriot officials.
After a few hours, the passengers and crew were freed unharmed and the hijacker, whose motives remained a mystery, was arrested after giving himself up.
Eighty-one people, including 21 foreigners and 15 crew, had been onboard the Airbus 320 flight when it took off, Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry said in a statement.
Conflicting theories emerged about the hijacker’s motives, with Cypriot officials saying early on the incident did not appear related to terrorism but the Cypriot state broadcaster saying he had demanded the release of women prisoners in Egypt.
After the aircraft landed at Larnaca airport, negotiations began and everyone onboard was freed except three passengers and four crew members, Egypt’s Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fethy said.
Cypriot television footage showed several people leaving the plane via the stairs and another man climbing out of the cockpit window and running off.
The hijacker then surrendered to authorities.
“It’s over,” the Cypriot foreign ministry said in a tweet.
Speaking to reporters after the crisis ended, Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said the hijacker was an Egyptian national. Egyptian officials have identified the hijacker as Seifedeen Mustafa. An earlier name given for him was wrong.
“At some moments 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,” he said, adding that the man would now be questioned to find out his intentions.
Cypriot foreign ministry official Alexandros Zenon told reporters during the crisis that the hijacker appeared to be “unstable”.
Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry said the plane’s pilot, Omar al-Gammal, had informed authorities that he was threatened by a passenger wearing a suicide explosives belt and forced him to land in Larnaca.
Egyptian state television showed photographs of a middle-aged man on a plane wearing glasses and displaying a white belt with bulging pockets and protruding wires.
Fethy, the Egyptian minister, said authorities suspected the suicide belt was not real but took the incident seriously to ensure the safety of all those on board.
“Our passengers are all well and the crew is all well… We cannot say this was a terrorist act… he was not a professional,” Fethy told reporters after the incident.
In the midst of the crisis, witnesses said the hijacker had thrown a letter on the apron in Larnaca, written in Arabic, asking that it be delivered to his ex-wife, who is Cypriot.
But the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation (CyBC) said the hijacker had asked for the release of women prisoners in Egypt, suggesting a political motive.
EgyptAir also delayed a New York-bound flight from Cairo onto which some passengers of the hijacked plane had been due to connect. Fethy said it was delayed partly due to a technical issue but partly as a precaution.
The plane remained on the tarmac at Larnaca throughout the morning while Cypriot security forces took up positions around the scene.
Egypt’s vital tourism industry was already reeling from the crash of a Russian passenger plane in the Sinai in late October.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has said it was brought down by a terrorist attack. ISIS has said it planted a bomb on board, killing all 224 people on board.
Egypt’s tourism industry will suffer another setback by this incident and efforts to revive an economy hammered by political unrest following the 2011 uprising will be shook.
Cyprus juxtaposes with the Middle East, but it sees little militant activity.
A botched attempt by Egyptian commandos to storm a hijacked airliner at Larnaca airport led to the disruption of diplomatic relations between Cyprus and Egypt in 1978.
In 1988, a Kuwaiti airliner which had been hijacked from Bangkok to Kuwait in a 16-day siege had a stopover in Larnaca, where two hostages were killed.