LARNACA, Cyprus – A man described as “psychologically unstable” hijacked a flight Tuesday from Egypt to Cyprus and threatened to blow it up. His explosives turned out to be fake, and he surrendered with all passengers released unharmed after a bizarre six-hour standoff.
As more became known about the motive of the 59-year-old Egyptian who was taken into custody, authorities characterized the commandeering of the EgyptAir jetliner not as an act of terrorism but more like a “family feud” with his former wife.
The aviation drama ended peacefully on the tarmac of Larnaca airport on the island nation’s southern coast with the surrender of a man identified by Cypriot and Egyptian authorities as Seif Eddin Mustafa.
The incident was likely to renew concerns about Egyptian airport security months after a Russian passenger plane was blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in a bombing claimed by the Islamic State group.
But Egyptian officials stressed that their security measures were not to blame, and there was praise for the EgyptAir flight crew. Pilot Amr Gamal told The Associated Press: “We rescued all the people and the man got arrested.”
EgyptAir Flight 181 took off from the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria for a 30-minute hop to Cairo with at least 72 people aboard, Cyprus police said, including about two dozen foreigners.
At some point, the hijacker claimed to have explosives in his belt and forced the pilot to fly the Airbus 320 to Cyprus, Egyptian authorities said.
Egyptian passenger Farah el-Dabani told the Dubai-based Al-Arabiyah TV network that the hijacker was seated in the back of the aircraft and that it was the crew who told passengers that the plane was being hijacked.
“There was panic at the beginning, but the crew told us to be quiet. They did a good job to keep us all quiet so the hijacker does not do anything rash,” she said in a telephone interview.
After the jet landed in Larnaca about 9 a.m., the hijacker asked to speak to his Cypriot ex-wife, who was brought to the airport, and he sent out a letter from the aircraft to give to her, said Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides.
The foreigners on board included eight Americans, four Britons, four Dutch, two Belgians, a French national, an Italian, two Greeks and one Syrian, the Egyptian Civil Aviation Ministry said. The nationalities of three other foreigners could not be determined immediately.
Most of the passengers were freed, and they calmly walked down a set of stairs from the plane, carrying their hand luggage and boarding a bus. But he kept on board seven people: four members of the flight crew and three passengers.
Mustafa later asked to speak to European Union representatives, and among his demands were the release of female inmates held in Egyptian prisons.
“It was one demand he made, then dropped it and made another,” Kasoulides said. “His demands made no sense or were too incoherent to be taken seriously.”
From the start, “it was clear that this wasn’t an act of terrorism,” he added.
“Despite the fact that the individual appeared to be dangerous in terms of his behavior, we understood that this was a psychologically unstable person,” he said.
Hussein Abdelkarim Tantaway Mubarak, Egypt’s ambassador to Cyprus, said the whole affair “looks like it was a family feud.”
“As far as I know, I think he has a family problem, probably with members of his family, probably his ex-wife or something,” Mubarak added.
A Cypriot police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give out details of the investigation said the hijacker and his wife were divorced in 1994, and the couple had four children.
The hijacker eventually realized there was “no chance” any of his demands would be met, Kasoulides said, and he left the plane, where he was immediately arrested by anti-terrorism police. The belt of explosives turned out to be “telephone cases” made to look like they were explosives.
Just minutes before the arrest, several people were seen also getting off the aircraft, and a crew member – later identified as Ahmed el-Qaddah – climbed out of the cockpit window and slid down the side of the plane in accordance with his training for such emergencies.
Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades said the hijacking was “not something that has to do with terrorism.”
Anastasiades, appearing alongside European Parliament President Martin Schulz in Nicosia, was asked by reporters whether he could confirm that the incident was about a woman. “Always, there is a woman,” he replied, drawing laughter.
But the mood aboard the hijacked aircraft was anything but light-hearted.
A veiled female passenger told Egyptian TV upon arrival back in Cairo: “We were terrified but cooperating.”
The woman, who was not identified, said she thought the explosives had been real.
“I felt like the man can just press the button, and we will be gone,” she said.
A middle-aged male passenger who also didn’t identify himself told the broadcaster, “The situation was very hard, more than anyone can imagine.” He also praised the flight crew, saying they “were like a psychiatrists to the hijacker.”
The flight crew and passengers who returned to Cairo on Tuesday night broke into tears while hugging and kissing their waiting families.
Mustafa is to appear in court Wednesday, where authorities will ask that he be held on a number of unspecified charges, said police spokesman Andreas Angelides.
Mubarak said “it’s amazing” how the hijacker managed to convince passengers and crew that he had a belt of explosives strapped to him when he actually had no weapons.
Police in Cairo questioned Mustafa’s relatives, said Sharif Faisal, the police chief for the industrial suburb of Helwan.
Islam Magdy, a taxi driver who lives in the same five-story house as Mustafa’s sister, described him as “a mysterious person,” with police inquiring about him.
Egypt’s Interior Ministry released surveillance video that it said showed Mustafa being thoroughly searched at the Alexandria airport. It said his hand luggage held items that he later used to “give the impression that he is wearing an explosive belt.”
Aviation expert Philip Baum said the EgyptAir crew “seems to have responded to this incident in an exemplary fashion.”
“The idea that the air crew should have taken steps to overpower the hijacker is, I believe, wrong,” said Baum, author of “Violence in the Skies: A History of Aircraft Hijacking and Bombing.”
Flight attendant Nihal el-Barqouqi played a role in convincing the hijacker to free the passengers once the plane landed in Cyprus, Egyptian TV reported.
“We managed with diplomacy… to get the passengers out,” co-pilot Ahmed el-Qaddah told the broadcaster.
Security at Egyptian airports has been under scrutiny since the Oct. 31 crash of a Russian jetliner in the Sinai Peninsula minutes after it took off the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for St. Petersburg, Russia. All 224 people on board were killed.
Russia later said a bomb brought down the aircraft, and the Islamic State group took responsibility. Russia suspended all air links to Egypt after the revelations about the bombing, dealing a major blow to the Egyptian tourism industry.
Michael reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Hamza Hendawi, Mariam Mazen and Sam Magdy in Cairo contributed to this report.