More details are emerging about the man who hijacked EgyptAir flight MS181 apparently using a fake suicide belt.
All passengers and crew onboard were eventually released unharmed after the plane was forced to land at Larnaca airport in Cyprus.
Cypriot officials are describing the alleged hijacker, 59-year-old Seif Eldin Mustafa, as “psychologically unstable.”
He was allegedly responsible for hijacking the EgyptAir plane that was en route from Alexandria to Cairo in Egypt and diverting it to Larnaca airport in Cyprus.
Egypt says the pilot had informed authorities he was being threatened by a passenger claiming to be wearing a suicide explosives belt.
In the early stage of developments, Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathy told a news conference authorities were taking the situation very seriously.
“The reality is that we have a hijacker on board a plane, we’re not sure whether what he has is a true bomb or threat to the aircraft, but we are dealing with it as a real threat, because we cannot take any risk except dealing with it as a serious situation.”
The flight was carrying more than 60 people, including passengers from Egypt, the United States and Britain.
All but seven were released shortly after the plane touched down in Larnaca and as negotiations began with the hijacker.
Conflicting information originally emerged over his identity, with some naming him as Egyptian national Dr Ibrahim Samaha.
The real Dr Ibrahim Samaha, who was, in fact, a passenger onboard the flight, has told the BBC what happened.
(Translated) “We didn’t know what was going on. We got aboard the plane, and we were surprised that the crew took our passports, which is unusual for a domestic flight. After a while, we realised that 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. Only later, we knew it was hijacked.”
The alleged motives for the hijacker were also conflicting in the early stages, with officials saying he kept asking for “many things.”
Witnesses reported he had thrown a letter written in Arabic onto the tarmac asking to see his Cypriot ex-wife and that he had demanded the release of female prisoners in Egypt.
In a press conference at the start of the incident, Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades did rule out fears it was a terrorist attack.
“We are doing our utmost in order for everyone to be released and safe and to bring an end to this unprecedented … in any case, it’s not something which has to do with terrorism. You know what I mean?”
But passenger Farah Al-Dubani says the ordeal felt like an act of terror to all onboard.
She has described the emotional and psychological trauma she went through.
“It was the moment when I knew that we’d been hijacked and I was — we were — above the sea, you know. I felt like he’ll either bomb the plane, or he’ll just demand that we land in the sea, or we’ll just keep on flying until there’s no fuel. So I just had several scenarios on my mind, trying to figure out what can happen. I was trying to make peace with it. It was a horrifying moment. I couldn’t believe it. At first, I thought it was like an April Fools’ joke or whatever, it cannot be real. And I think, like most of the passengers, everyone thought that there was no (good) end.”
After a stand-off that lasted six hours, Seif Eldin Mustafa finally surrendered to police and was arrested.
His suicide belt was revealed to be fake, made out of iPhone cases tied together with cloth.
The Egyptian Interior Affairs Ministry says Mr Mustafa is an ex-convict, having served time for crimes related to fraud.
Egypt’s prime minister, Sherif Ismail, says an in-depth investigation will be conducted.
(Translated) “The hijacker, at one point, demanded to meet with one of the EU representatives. And at another point, he demanded that the plane leave to another airport. In general, there was no one specific demand. He is an Egyptian, and, obviously, there will be a thorough investigation with the hijacker to find out the reasons behind such an act.”
Another plane landed at Larnaca airport hours after the siege ended to take the passengers back to Egypt.
But the incident is another blow to the country’s tourism industry.
It has faced questions over air security since the bombing of a Russian Metrojet airliner in Sinai province in October that killed all 224 people onboard.
Prime Minister Ismail has given assurances that procedures were rigorous in the latest incident.
(Translated)”We conduct strict and very accurate measures in our airports and seaports. We folllow up on all fronts. I hope that all will go well with the continuous follow-up work and development with the new equipment we have.”
Aviation security analyst Matthew Finn says there are some scenarios which will always be difficult to prepare for.
“It reminds us to look at aviation security more holistically. There are vulnerabilities in the system. It’s not a total-security environment. There remain risks.”