Egypt plane hijacker remanded as incident sparks online buzz

Friday 25/03/2016
He was likely not a real danger

LARNACA (Cyprus) - The man accused of hijacking an Egyptian plane with a fake suicide belt and diverting it to Cyprus was remanded into custody Wednesday, as social media buzzed with ridicule about the bizarre incident.

A judge in Larnaca on the island's southern coast ordered 58-year-old Egyptian Seif al-Din Mohamed Mostafa held for eight days as he made his first court appearance after Tuesday's hijacking.

Mostafa is accused of forcing the Alexandria-to-Cairo flight to divert to Cyprus, where he demanded to see his Cypriot ex-wife, with whom he has children.

Police told the court that Mostafa -- described by officials as "psychologically unstable" -- faces possible charges of hijacking, kidnapping, reckless and threatening behaviour, and breaches of the anti-terror law.

Mostafa did not speak in court, but he flashed journalists the victory sign as he was driven away by police from the courthouse, which is less than a kilometre (half a mile) from Larnaca airport where a six-hour standoff unfolded after the hijacking.

He will not face any formal charges until a later hearing and only at that point will he be expected to enter a plea.

Most of the 55 passengers on the EgyptAir flight were quickly released after it landed in Larnaca but it took hours of negotiations, including a conversation with his ex-wife, before Mostafa surrendered to police.

"What's someone supposed to do when he hasn't seen his wife and children in 24 years and the Egyptian government won't let you?" police prosecutor Andreas Lambrianou quoted him as telling officers after his arrest.

Some passengers and crew escaped only minutes before the standoff ended, including one uniformed man who was seen clambering out of a cockpit window and dropping to the ground.

Among them was a 26-year-old British man, Ben Innes, who asked crew to snap a photograph of him standing beside Mostafa that has been widely shared on social media.

The image features a grinning Innes standing next to Mostafa, who has what appears to be a rudimentary suicide vest strapped to his chest. Cypriot officials have said he concocted the fake vest out of mobile phone covers and wires.

"I figured if his bomb was real I'd nothing to lose anyway, so took a chance to get a closer look at it," Innes, a health and safety auditor from Leeds, told Britain's The Sun newspaper.

"So I stood by him and smiled for the camera while a stewardess did the snap. It has to be the best selfie ever," he said.

As it became clear on Tuesday that the hijacker was trying to contact his ex-wife and was likely not a real danger, Egyptians also took to social media to poke fun at the incident, many using the Twitter hashtag #loveisintheair.

"This is what happens when you block your ex," one person wrote on Twitter, while another opined: "Some may wonder why the hijacker didn't just email his wife. They don't realise how terrible Egypt's Internet is."

H.A. Hellyer, an Arab affairs specialist at the Royal United Services Institute in London, tweeted: "My wife just told me: 'You don't love me enough. You haven't hijacked a plane to talk to me. Sort it out'"

After several hours in Larnaca, passengers on the flight were flown to Cairo late on Tuesday.

"Fifteen minutes after departure we saw on the screens that the plane was not going to Cairo and it was crossing the sea," passenger Noha Saleh said on arrival in the Egyptian capital.

"They said it was a technical problem and they needed to go to Cyprus or Greece to fix it... they were professional and their attitude was normal," she said.

Concerns were raised about security at Egyptian airports after a Russian airliner was downed on October 31 over the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people on board. The Islamic State group claimed to have smuggled a bomb on board.

The police prosecutor said Cypriot authorities would seek the help of Interpol to discover how the fake suicide belt passed through airport security in Alexandria.

But Egypt's interior ministry said in a statement that all security measures had been applied.

The accused hijacker and his luggage were scanned, it said, and he had used "non-prohibited belongings" in his handbag "to imply that he was wearing an explosive belt and to threaten the crew and passengers."