It even prompted Egypt’s foreign ministry to declare, before the man’s capture, that the hijacker is “not a terrorist, he’s an idiot”. A senior Cypriot official said he was psychologically unstable and the incident did not appear related to terrorism.
President Nicos Anastasiades of Cyprus said the hijacking was “not something that has to do with terrorism” and a Cyprus government official said the man, who was arrested hours later after giving himself up, “seems [to be] in love”.
Mr 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” involved, he replied, drawing laughter.
The passengers and crew were unharmed. Eighty-one people, including 21 foreigners and 15 crew, had been on board the Airbus 320 when it took off from Alexandria en route to Cairo, Egypt’s civil aviation ministry said in a statement.
In the midst of the crisis, witnesses said the hijacker had thrown a letter on the apron at Cyprus’s Larnaca airport, written in Arabic, and asked that it be delivered to his Cypriot ex-wife.
After the aircraft landed at Larnaca, negotiations began and everyone on board was freed, except three passengers and four crew, Egypt’s civil aviation minister Sherif Fethy said. Soon afterwards, Cypriot television footage showed several people leaving the plane via the stairs and another man climbing out of the cockpit window and running off.
The hijacker then surrendered to authorities.
“Its over,” said the Cypriot foreign ministry in a tweet.
Egyptian prime minister Sherif Ismail said the hijacker was being questioned to ascertain his motives.
“At some moments, he asked to meet with a representative of the European Union and at other points he asked to go to another airport, but there was nothing specific,” he said.
Egypt’s civil aviation ministry said the pilot, Omar al-Gammal, had told authorities that he was threatened by a passenger who claimed to be wearing a suicide explosive belt and forced him to divert the plane to Larnaca. Gammal told Reuters that the hijacker seemed “abnormal”.
“I am not in a state to speak,” said the exhausted-sounding pilot, adding that he had been obliged to treat the suicide belt as a serious security threat.
Photographs on Egyptian state television showed a middle-aged man on a plane wearing glasses and displaying a white belt with bulging pockets and protruding wires. Another photo showed him allow a passenger take a selfie with him. Television channels showed video footage of the hijacker, identified as Seif Eldin Mustafa, 59, being searched by security men at a metal detector at Borg al-Arab airport in Alexandria.
Interior ministry officials said he was expelled from law school and had a long criminal record, including robberies.
Fethy, the Egyptian minister, said authorities suspected the suicide belt was not genuine but treated the incident as serious to ensure the safety of all those on board.
EgyptAir delayed a New York-bound flight from Cairo onto which some passengers of the hijacked plane had been due to connect. Fethy said it was delayed partly due to a technical issue but partly as a precaution.
The incident will deal another blow to Egypt’s tourism industry and hurt efforts to revive an economy hammered by political unrest following the 2011 uprising that ousted veteran ruler Hosni Mubarak. The sector, a main source of hard currency for the import-dependent country, was already reeling from the crash of a Russian passenger plane in the Sinai peninsula in late October.
The latest incident raised renewed questions over airport security in Egypt, though it was not clear if the hijacker was even armed. Ismail said stringent measures were in place.
Passengers on the plane included eight Americans, four Britons, four Dutch, two Belgians, an Italian, a Syrian, and a French national, the civil aviation ministry said.
Cyprus has seen little militant activity for decades, despite its proximity to the Middle East.
In 1988, a Kuwaiti airliner, which had been hijacked from Bangkok to Kuwait in a 16-day siege, had a stopover in Larnaca, where two hostages were killed.