Two Libyan hijackers seeking asylum in Europe to “establish a pro-Gaddafi party” have surrendered following a tense stand-off lasting more than four hours after forcing a plane to land with 118 people on board in Malta.
The men in their 20s, supporters of the late former leader, Muammar Gaddafi, were seen walking away from the Afriqiyah Airways plane with the final crew members after giving themselves up on Friday afternoon.
The Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, said on Twitter that the pair – who had threatened to blow up the plane with grenades – had released all 111 passengers and seven crew members, adding: “Hijackers surrendered, searched and taken in custody.”
A Libyan MP who spoke to a passenger on board Flight 8U209 said the men were demanding the creation of a pro-Gaddafi party.
One of the hijackers told Libyan television that he is the head of a pro-Gaddafi political party.
A minister said the hijackers, who forced the aircraft to land at 10.30am GMT, were asking for asylum in Malta.
Ashraf al-Tulty, a spokesman for the UN-brokered government in Libya, said a Libyan lawmaker, Abdel-Salam al-Marabet, was on the diverted flight.
Another Libyan lawmaker from Sabha, Youssef Kalikori, said that he had been talking by phone to al-Marabet, who said the hijackers are demanding “asylum in a European country where they can establish a political party named al-Fateh that represents the old (Libyan) regime.”
About two-and-a-half hours after the hijacked plane landed at Valletta, the doors opened at 12.44pm GMT and a staircase moved to the door before passengers began leaving the Airbus A320.
Over the next few hours, passengers began leaving the plane in groups. The hijackers surrendered at shortly after 2.30pm GMT.
Maltese government sources said that at least one hijacker on board had told crew that he had a grenade.
After a long wait on the runway, the plane’s door opened and a first group of women and children were seen descending a mobile staircase. Dozens more passengers were released minutes later.
The plane had been on a domestic Libyan route operated by Afriqiyah Airways from Sabha in southern Libya to the capital Tripoli on Friday morning, but was re-routed.
“The Afriqiyah flight from Sabha to Tripoli has been diverted and has landed in Malta. Security services coordinating operations,” Muscat said on his official Twitter account.
“It has been established that Afriqiyah flight has 111 passengers on board: 82 males, 28 females, 1 infant,” he said. There are also seven crew members.
Muscat later spoke to Libya’s prime minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the North African country’s fledgling unity government.
The plane could be seen on the runway surrounded by military vehicles and all flights in and out of the airport were initially either delayed or diverted to destinations in Italy.
There were conflicting reports about the number of hijackers. Maltese government sources said that there was a single hijacker on board who had told the crew that he had a grenade and would release the passengers only if his as yet unspecified demands were met.
“Negotiations are under way to guarantee the security of all the passengers,” the source said, without specifying who was negotiating.
An Afriqiyah Airways source said two hijackers had threatened the pilots with an explosive device, probably a grenade.
The deputy mayor for Lija in Malta, Madga Magri Naudi, earlier said that the hijackers had not yet made demands.
“The request has not been made,” she told the BBC. “This is a problem: we do not know what their requests are at the moment.”
The pilot earlier tried to land in Libya, but the hijackers refused his request, he told Tripoli airport control before communications were lost, according to a security official.
“The pilot reported to the control tower in Tripoli that they were being hijacked, then they lost communication with him,” the official said. “The pilot tried very hard to have them land at the correct destination but they refused.”
A source from Libya’s unity government confirmed hijackers diverted the plane and it had received permission to land in Malta. The island lies about 300 miles (500 km) north of the Libyan coast.
The Malta airport authority said all emergency teams had been dispatched to the site of what it called an “unlawful interference” on the airport tarmac.
The plane could be seen on the tarmac at Valletta surrounded by military vehicles and all flights from the airport were cancelled.
The plane’s engines were still running long after the aircraft landed at 10.30am GMT.