CAIRO — An Egyptian airliner passenger claiming to have an explosive belt diverted a domestic flight to Cyprus on Tuesday, releasing dozens of passengers but holding crew members and several others on board in a standoff touched off by unclear motives.
Cyprus’ president said the hijacking was “not something which has to do with terrorism,” but the reason was not fully apparent.
Cyprus’s state broadcaster said the hijacker was asking for the release of political prisoners in Egypt. Earlier, however, a Cyprus government spokesman speculated the hijacker was driven by a possible failed relationship after asking to deliver a letter to a woman who lives on the eastern Mediterranean island.
There were no reports of injuries among those released or held on board EgyptAir Flight MS 181: four crew members and at least three passengers, the airline said. It was not immediately clear why the passengers were not freed with the others.
The airliner was flying from the northern Egyptian port of Alexandria to the capital, Cairo. Instead, the plane was forced to head north to Larnaca, Cyprus after being “officially hijacked,” said a Twitter message from EgptAir.
Sherif Fathy, Egypt’s minister of aviation, told a press conference hours after the hijacking that the man was holding seven hostages, including the captain, his assistant, one flight attendant, a security officer and three passengers. No further details on identities or passenger nationalities were given.
He said several parties were trying to negotiate with the hijacker. He angrily declined to answer a question about security concerns at Egyptian airports.
Fathy said the pilot and hijacker had a discussion over whether to fly to Turkey or Cyprus, and decided on European Union-member Cyprus — about 300 miles to the northeast — apparently because the plane did not have enough fuel to reach Turkey. He said it was unclear whether the hijacker was actually wearing an explosives belt, as originally reported. “It could be a fake one,” he said.
Passengers were seen calmly disembarking in waves from the Airbus at Larnaca airport carrying luggage. Some appeared to be wearing crew uniforms.
An Egyptian civil aviation authority spokesman told The Washington Post there were 56 people on board, including 30 Egyptians, 11 Italians, eight Americans, two Belgians, two Greeks, a French citizen and a Syrian. He declined to comment further.
Egypt Air initially said there were 88 passengers on the plane.
The hijacker was initially named as Egyptian national Ibrahim Samaha, an Egyptian university professor. But Samaha told BBC Arabic he was not the hijacker, but merely a passenger on the plane.
“We did not know what was going on,” he told the BBC. “We got aboard the plane and we were surprised that the crew took all our passports, which is unusual for a domestic flight. After a while we realized that the altitude is 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 we knew it was hijacked.”
Cypriot media reported the hijacker wanted to see his ex-wife, who lives in Larnaca. The woman was said to be on her way to the airport.
If the hijacker was able to board the flight with an explosives belt or other kind of arms, it would be another major embarrassment to the Egyptian government and highlight the lingering concerns among aviation authorities and analysts of the country’s poor security at airports.
Militant attacks in Egypt have surged in recent years, driving tourists and foreign investors away as the government struggles to revive the economy.
Egypt’s American-backed military is battling an Islamic State affiliate in the country’s northern Sinai Peninsula. In October, a Russian passenger plane was brought down over the Sinai by a bomb planted aboard, an attack that was claimed by the Islamic State.
Plane hijackings were once more common, but increased security and passenger screening has sharply reduced the number of aircraft commandeered in flight.
In February 2014, a man falsely claiming to have a bomb demanded a Pegasus Airlines plane — traveling from Kharkiv, Ukraine, to Istanbul — be diverted to Sochi, Russia, then hosting the Winter Olympics. The pilot landed in Istanbul, telling the hijacker they were in Sochi. The man, who was apparently intoxicated, was arrested and no passengers or crew were harmed.
Less than two weeks later, the co-pilot of an Ethiopian Airlines Flight from Addis Ababa to Rome took command of the aircraft and landed in Geneva, demanding asylum. He was arrested and no injuries occurred. A co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, also took control of Germanwings Flight 9525 in March 2015 before crashing the plane in the French Alps, killing all 150 people aboard.
Deane reported from London, Murphy reported from Washington. Heba Habib contributed from Cairo.