Updated Dec. 23, 2016 8:08 a.m. ET
Two suspected hijackers of an Afriqiyah Airways airliner with 111 passengers aboard have threatened to blow up the plane on the runway at the international airport in Malta, a Maltese government spokesman said Friday.
The airliner, an Airbus A320, landed at Malta’s Luqa airport at 1030 GMT, according to Flightradar24. A negotiating team was in contact with the hijackers, the spokesman said.
In messages on his official Twitter account early Friday afternoon, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said a group of 25 passengers consisting of women and children had been released. He gave no further details.
The plane, bound for Libyan capital Tripoli from the central city of Sabha, was diverted by the alleged hijackers, who demanded to be flown to the tiny Mediterranean island. The men, both Libyan, threatened the crew with homemade grenades, according to an Afriqiyah board member.
“The plane was forced to land in Malta at the hijackers’ request. We don’t know the reason they are doing this,” he said.
Airport authorities in Malta confirmed that there has been “an unlawful interference” at the airport and that emergency teams have been dispatched to the site.
All Libyan carriers are banned from flying to the European Union under the bloc’s so-called aviation safety blacklist. The EU took the step two years ago out of concern that Libyan aviation officials couldn’t ensure safety because of the country’s political turmoil.
Afriqiyah Airways has been the victim of Libya’s political unrest before. In 2014 attacks by militias on Tripoli Airport destroyed and damaged several of its planes. Four years earlier some of its planes were destroyed in fighting at Tripoli’s airport.
The airline has a fleet of six active planes, all made by European plane maker Airbus.
The hijacking comes amid a tumultuous year for aviation security that has seen bombings of jetliners, airports and hijackings.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., plane hijackings have become rarer. Locked and reinforced cockpit doors have made it more difficult for hijackers to enter. But hijackers have still managed to force planes to alter course.
In March, an EgyptAir flight with 63 passengers and crew aboard was hijacked on a domestic flight and forced to divert to Cyprus. The hijacker was carrying an authentic-looking suicide vest that turned out to be fake.
The hijacking occurred just days after Brussels Airport was struck by suicide bombers. The March 22 bombing, along with a parallel attack on the Belgian capital’s subway, killed 32 people.
In June, attackers hit Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, killing 45 people.
EgyptAir Flight 804, an Airbus Group SE A320, disappeared from radar on May 19 while flying at 37,000 feet. The plane, bound to Cairo from Paris and carrying 66 passengers and crew, had just entered Egyptian airspace when it plunged into the Mediterranean Sea.
Egyptian officials said earlier this month that explosive residue was found on the bodies of some of the victims.
The Islamic extremist group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for an explosion on Feb. 2 aboard a plane operated by Djibouti-based Daallo Airlines in Mogadishu, Somalia.
Only one person, the suspected bomber, died in the attack shortly after takeoff. The crew managed to land the plane after its fuselage was punctured by the blast.
— Hassan Morajea contributed to this article.
The first women and children have now been allowed to leave the plane after it landed.
It was reportedly being seized by hijackers loyal to former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Joseph Muscat, the Prime Minister of Malta, said he was informed of a “potential hijack” on the plane carrying 82 male passengers, 28 females and one infant.
Follow live updates here
MOVEMENT SPOTTED INSIDE HIJACKED PASSENGER JET IN MALTA
The Malta airport authority said all emergency teams were dispatched to the site of what it called an “unlawful interference” on the airport tarmac.
The hijackers told crew they were “pro-Gaddafi” and were willing to let all 111 passengers leave the Airbus A320, but not its seven crew, if their demands were met, the Times of Malta reported.
HIJACKERS TAKE JET IN MALTA WITH 118 PASSENGERS ON BOARD
Gaddafi was killed in an uprising in 2011 and the country has been racked by violence since.
The Maltese Prime Minister wrote on Twitter: “Informed of potential hijack situation of a #Libya internal flight diverted to #Malta. Security and emergency operations standing by.”
The Airbus A320 aircraft took off this morning and appears to have been hijacked mid-air when two men said they would detonate the explosive.
Information from flightradar24.com shows the aircraft took off from the country’s Sebha airport at 9.30am local time and was due to fly to Tripoli, the capital city.
It flew for two hours and 13 minutes before touching down at Malta International Airport, where it remains. The passengers are still on board.