Passengers leaving hijacked plane in Malta

VALLETTA, Malta — Passengers walked down the steps from a hijacked plane at Malta International Airport on Friday, and Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tweeted that a first group of 25 had been freed and the release of another 25 was under way.

Buses were driven onto the tarmac to carry passengers away, and more releases were expected, with more than 100 passengers and crew reported to have been on board. Television footage showed no signs of struggle or alarm.

The aircraft had been on an internal flight in Libya on Friday morning when it was diverted to Malta, 500 km (300 miles) north of the Libyan coast, after a hijacker told crew he had a hand grenade.

Initial reports said the hijacker had told crew he was “pro-Gaddafi” and that he was willing to let all 111 passengers leave the Airbus A320, but not its seven crew, if his demands were met, the Times of Malta said.

It was unclear what the demands were. Some media reports said there was more than one hijacker. Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed in an uprising in 2011, and the country has been racked by factional violence since.

Troops took up positions a few hundred meters (yards) from the plane as it stood on the tarmac. Several other flights at Malta International Airport were canceled or diverted.

A senior Libyan security official told Reuters that when the plane was still in flight on Friday morning the pilot told the control tower at Tripoli’s Mitiga airport it had been hijacked.

“The pilot reported to the control tower in Tripoli that they were being hijacked, then they lost communication with him,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The pilot tried very hard to have them land at the correct destination but they refused.”

Large numbers of security officials could be seen at Mitiga airport after news of the hijacking.

The aircraft had been flying from Sebha in southwest Libya to Tripoli for state-owned Afriqiyah Airways, a route that would usually take a little over two hours.

The government of the tiny Mediterranean island, a European Union member, said Muscat had discussed the hijack with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj by phone, and a negotiating team had been formed and was at the airport. Britain offered Malta help with dealing with the incident.

The last major hijacking in Malta was in 1985, when Palestinians took over an Egyptair plane. Egyptian commandos stormed the aircraft and dozens of people were killed.

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