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All passengers and crew freed from hijacked plane in Malta

A Libyan aircraft with 118 people on board landed in Malta after it was hijacked. All of the passengers and crew have since been released. The hijackers were said to be members of a pro-Gadhafi group.

The two Libyan hijackers have also left the plane with the final crew members in the small European nation.

The state-owned Afriqiyah Airways A320 jet was flying an internal route from Sebha to Tripoli carrying 111 passengers and seven crew members, when it was hijacked and forced to land on the Mediterranean island.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat confirmed that hijackers were arrested after leaving the plane. Earlier he tweeted that 82 males, 28 females and one infant are on board the aircraft.

A Libyan lawmaker, who spoke to a colleague aboard the flight, said that there were two hijackers armed with hand grenades. They appeared to be in their mid 20s, deputy Hadi al-Saghir said after reportedly talking to fellow member of parliament, Abdusalem Mrabit.

Maltese state television TVM said the hijackers threatened to explode the plane if their demands were not met. The Times of Malta reported that the suspects were from a Libyan pro-Gadhafi group Al Fatah Al Gadida, and one of them was seen waving a green flag, presumed to be an old flag of Libya, from the plane's door.

The pilot of the plane, Ali Milad, said that the hijackers initially demanded that he head to Rome. Speaking to Libya Channel TV network, he added that the men wanted to set up a political party called "the New Fateh," referencing the Fateh revolution by the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

In a tweet, the TV station also quoted one of the hijackers as saying: "We took this measure to declare and promote our new party."

Prime Minister Muscat spoke to the head of Libyan unity government Fayez Serraj, Muscat's office said.

'It was a very good day'

At a Friday press conference, Muscat denied earlier reports that hijackers had requested political asylum.

The officials told them that they would have to release the hostages for "any discussion to be entertained," Muscat said, confirming that the hijackers turned themselves in and were being questioned.

"They were found to be in possession of a hand grenade and a pistol," he said at a press conference. Security forces were searching the plane and have already discovered another pistol, Muscat added.  

The authorities were also interviewing passengers and crew, Muscat said, adding that "arrangements will be made" for them to continue their journey.

"God willing, it was a very good day, with no casualties," he concluded.

Later on Friday, however, the government announced that the weapons used in the hijack were fake.

"Initial forensic investigations about the attempted hijack |...| shows that the weapons used were identical replica weapons." officials said.

Troops were positioned a few hundred meters from the plane during the stand-off.

The pilot of the Afriqiyah Airways plane told the Tripoli control tower that the aircraft had been hijacked, a senior security official at Tripoli's Mitiga airport told Reuters news agency.

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

"The pilot tried very hard to have them land at the correct destination but they refused," the official added.

Flights in or out of the airport were initially delayed or diverted - including a Lufthansa flight - but airport operations have meanwhile resumed. The tiny Mediterranean island of Malta is located around 500 km (300 miles) north of the Libyan coast.

The last major hijacking in Malta took place in 1985 when Palestinian militants took over an EgyptAir plane. Dozens of people were killed when Egyptian commandos stormed the aircraft.

rs/sms (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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