EgyptAir hijacker arrested; overtook plane because of ex-wife, officials say
[Breaking news update published at 7:55 a.m. ET]
(CNN) — An Egyptian man hijacked an EgyptAir flight over his ex-wife, forcing the plane to land in Cyprus, officials said Tuesday.
Authorities identified the hijacker as Egyptian national Seif El Din Mustafa, presidential spokesman Alaa Yousuf said. Earlier, Yousuf identified the hijacker as an Egyptian-American dual citizen with a different name.
The Airbus 320 had at least 81 people on board, Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry said.
By midday Tuesday, many of the passengers had been released. But three passengers and four crew members remain on board, Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathy Ateyya said.
The hijacking is not related to terrorism, but rather the hijacker’s ex-wife, a spokesman for the Cyprus Ministry of Transport said.
Egyptian authorities have been negotiating with the hijacker.
Threat of explosives
EgyptAir Flight 181 should have been a short one — from Alexandria, Egypt, to the capital city of Cairo
But during the flight, a passenger claimed he had an explosive belt, pilot Omar El Gamal said, according to the Egyptian Civil Aviation Ministry.
That forced the plane to land at Larnaca International Airport in Cyprus.
“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 don’t know whether the hijacker really has an explosive belt, “but we are treating it as if it is real,” the Egyptian aviation minister said.
“We are dealing with it as a real threat because we cannot take any risk.”
Aviation Ministry spokesman Ehab Raslan said he doesn’t think the hijacker actually has explosives “because security has been heightened across all Egyptian airports.”
“But we will be able to confirm later,” Raslan said.
‘Old-fashioned type of terrorism’
The hijacking is “a more old-fashioned type of terrorism,” said Sajjan Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation London.
“It is rare these days to have these kinds of negotiations to be taking place,” he said. “Many of the hostages have been released, which is a very good sign.”
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.
Ateyya, the aviation minister, did not say the nationalities of the passengers still on aboard.
All flights into Larnaca airport are being diverted to Paphos International Airport on the southwest coast of the island, the Cyprus Civil Aviation Authority said.
Questionable air security
The hijacking Tuesday is 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.