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EgyptAir hijacked plane: Man wearing 'suicide belt' takes hostages on flight with British and American passengers on board

The Independent logo The Independent 29/03/2016 Matt Payton

An Egyptian passenger plane has landed in Cyprus after being hijacked by a man claiming to be wearing a suicide belt.

EgyptAir Flight 181 was on a scheduled journey from Alexandria to Cairo when it veered off course on Tuesday morning.

Sources told Reuters that British and Americans passengers were on board but it was unclear if they had been released or were among those held hostage as negotiations continued.

The attacker was named in state-controlled Egyptian media as Ibrahim Samaha, an Egyptian man aged 27 or 28 years old who was sat in seat 38K on the plane.

Mustafa Bakry, an Egyptian MP, wrote on Twitter that Samaha was a visiting professor at the university in Atlanta in the US.

But a professor at Alexandria University named Ibrahim Samaha denied he was the hijacker in an interview with BBC Arabic.

Samaha said he was on the plane but had been among the passengers evacuated at Larnaca airport.

“We did not know what was going on. We got on board the plane and we were surprised that the crew took all our passports, which is unusual for a domestic flight," he added.

“After a while we realised the altitude was getting higher, then we knew we were heading to Cyprus. At first the crew told us there was a problem with the plane and only later did we know it was hijacked.”

While initial reports claimed the hijacker was demanding “political asylum”, Cyprus broadcasting (CYBC) reported that the man may have personal motives and related to an ex-wife on the island.

Witnesses said the suspect threw a letter on to the airport tarmac in Larnaca, written in Arabic, asking that it be delivered to the woman, who is Cypriot.

She was reportedly being transported to the airport by officials as the crisis continued. 

Amid growing speculation about the hijacker's motives, the Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades said the Egypt plane hijacking was not related to “terrorism”.

The Guardian quoted a foreign ministry official in Cairo as saying: “He's not a terrorist, he's an idiot. Terrorists are crazy but they aren't stupid. This guy is.”

Androulla Vassiliou, the Cypriot former European Commissioner for Education, wrote on Twitter that the plane landed at 8.50am local time (6.50am BST). “Hijacked aircraft of Egypt Air with 82 passengers landed at Larnaca airport,” she wrote.

“Hijacked aircraft of Egypt Air with 82 passengers landed at Larnaca airport,” she wrote. “We are anxious to learn more.”

The number of people on board was later revised to 56 passengers, seven crew and a member of security staff in a statement from EgyptAir.

Satellite data recorded by the Flight Aware website showed the Airbus A320 took off from Borg El Arab Airport as scheduled but lists its status as “result unknown”.

A statement from EgyptAir said initial negotiations with a single hijacker had seen all those on board released apart from the flight crew and four foreigners.

Egyptian officials later said that more people had been released, leaving seven people - the captain, co-pilot, an air stewardess, a security officer and three passengers.

The country's civil aviation minister said the hijacker did not have a gun but claimed to be wearing a suicide belt, which could be fake. He said he could not confirm the suspect's identity.

A Cypriot policeman stands guard near a hijacked EgyptAir A320 plane at Larnaca Airport, Cyprus (Picture: [copyright]) © Provided by The Independent A Cypriot policeman stands guard near a hijacked EgyptAir A320 plane at Larnaca Airport, Cyprus (Picture: [copyright])

Updates posted in Arabic on Twitter by the airline said a passenger wearing a suicide belt had threatened the pilot, Omar Jamal, and that negotiations were underway.

A spokesperson said the aircraft had already been diverted to Larnaca when it was hijacked, adding: "The aircraft is an Airbus A320 with 56 passengers onboard in addition to seven crew members and one EgyptAir security member."

Footage from the airport showed the plane on a runway and passengers leaving the aircraft before getting on to waiting buses with their luggage.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office could not confirm whether any Britons were among the passengers, saying: “We are in contact with the Cypriot and Egyptian authorities after a hijacked plane landed in Cyprus.”

Hossni Hassan, the director of Borg El Arab Airport, said there were 26 foreigners on board, including eight Americans, four Britons, four Dutch, two Belgians, a French national, an Italian, two Greeks and one Syrian, with three other foreigners unidentified.

The hijacking comes five months after a Russian aircraft crashed over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula minutes after it took off from Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

All 224 people on board were killed in the crash. Russia later said an explosive device brought down the aircraft after Isis claimed responsibility.

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