MALTA — Almost everyone aboard a hijacked Libyan plane that was forced to land in Malta on Friday appears to have been released.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said 109 passengers had been released from the airliner, which was carrying 111 passengers and a number of crew members when it was made to divert.
The two hijackers had earlier threatened to blow up the plane, an Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320. It had been on a domestic service from Sabha, a desert city in southwestern Libya, to the capital, Tripoli, on the country’s northern coast.
A man appeared briefly at the top of the staircase to the plane’s door with a solid green flag, which in Libya signifies allegiance to the country’s late leader Moammar Gadhafi.
109 passengers have been released, said Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Crew members were also being released Malta’s armed forces are leading negotiations with the hijackers. There were seven crew members on board. Flight was scheduled to travel from Sabha to the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
Television Malta showed images of the plane’s door opening and of women walking down the staircase onto the tarmac. Men followed in later groups as security forces surrounded the plane.
Etienne Saint John, a spokesman for Malta’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Malta’s armed forces were leading the negotiations with the hijackers.
“They have grenades and are threatening to blow up the plane. No words on their demands yet,” he told CNN.
“The foreign affairs ministry is waiting for the passenger manifest. The safety of the passengers is of the utmost importance.”
Among the passengers was one infant, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tweeted, while the French news agency AFP said an additional seven crew members had been on board.
Live tracker FlightRadar24 said the aircraft was an Airbus A320.
According to the airport’s website, several flights had been diverted to Catania-Fontanarossa Airport in Italy.
Outbound flights have been delayed.
The plane was on service from Sabha, a desert city in southwestern Libya, to the capital, Tripoli, on the country’s northern coast.
But it landed some 350 kilometers north of Tripoli on the small island in the Mediterranean Sea.
While it is unclear who exactly the hijackers are, Sabha has been a center for political tribal violence.
Deadly clashes still erupt there between tribes loyal to Gadhafi and anti-Gaddafi groups. Enmity runs deep between the Gaddadfa and Suleiman tribes, the most powerful armed factions in the region.
Gadhafi, who was a member of the Gaddadfa tribe, was ousted from power and assassinated by rebels in 2011 in the Arab Spring uprising.
Libya has struggled to install a stable government since then, and the leadership vacuum has allowed militant groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda to flourish there.