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All 109 Passengers Are Safe After Libyan Jet Is Hijacked and Diverted to Malta

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Passengers leaving the hijacked Afriqiyah Airways plane at Malta International Airport on Friday.

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Matthew Mirabelli/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

CAIRO — All 109 passengers and crew members on board a hijacked Libyan airliner en route to the capital, Tripoli, were released on Friday, hours after two men claiming to be carrying explosives forced the plane to divert to Malta, Malta’s prime minister said.

The hijackers, who were apparently members of a group that supported Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and seeking asylum in Europe, were taken into custody after surrendering as they left the Airbus A320, according to officials and news reports.

The flight, operated by the state-owned Afriqiyah Airways of Libya, took off from the southern Libyan city of Sebha and was scheduled to fly to Tripoli, which is on the coast. It was diverted to Malta, about 200 miles across the Mediterranean Sea from the Libyan capital.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of Malta, who provided a steady stream of updates on Twitter about the situation, had said that there were 111 passengers on the plane: 82 men, 28 women and one infant, a breakdown that included the two hijackers. Afriqiyah officials confirmed that figure and said that seven crew members had also been on board.

The Maltese prime minister reported that the hijackers first released a group of 25 women and children, followed by a second block of 25 people. He continued to post updates on Twitter until it was clear that all of the passengers and crew had disembarked.

The hijackers said they represented a new political party, called Al Fateh Al Jadeed — a reference to the 1969 military coup in Libya in which Colonel Qaddafi came to power. “We did this to announce and publicize our new party,” one of the men said in a telephone interview with a Libyan news outlet.

Video footage from Malta showed a man standing outside the door of the plane waving a green flag — a symbolic nod to Colonel Qaddafi’s 42-year rule, which ended with his ouster and death in 2011.

Since then, Libya’s national flag has been replaced with a red, black and green standard that harks back to an earlier period of monarchical rule.

While he was in power, Colonel Qaddafi directly or indirectly supported several acts of airline terrorism, including the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, which killed 270 people; the bombing of a French aircraft over Niger in 1989 that left 170 dead; and the hijacking of a Pan Am flight to New York from Karachi in 1986 by a Palestinian splinter group that ended with a deadly siege.

A senior Afriqiyah Airways official said the hijackers had demanded visas for Europe, suggesting they did not have links to radical militant groups and might instead have intended to seek asylum.

“We feared they might be some of those ideological people, but that seems not to be the case,” said the official, Capt. Abdelatif Ali Kablan, the chairman of the airline, speaking by telephone from Tripoli.

It was the second hijacking this year of a passenger jet in the Mediterranean region. In March, an Egyptian man commandeered a domestic EgyptAir flight en route to Cairo and forced it to land in Cyprus, where he demanded the release of political prisoners in Egypt and a meeting with his estranged wife.

The crisis ended hours later with the surrender of the hijacker, Seif Eldin Mustafa, who turned out to be wearing a fake explosive vest fashioned from mobile phone cases that had been taped together.

In September, a court in Cyprus ordered the deportation of Mr. Mustafa, 59, to Egypt. His lawyers are resisting the order and seeking asylum for Mr. Mustafa, claiming he could be tortured if sent home.

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