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Libyan Commercial Plane Forced To Fly To Malta

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's what we know about the hijacking of a passenger plane today. It was a plane flown by Afriqiyah Airlines on a route in Libya. Hijackers seized control and ordered the flight out over the Mediterranean Sea and it landed on the island nation of Malta. We're going to talk about this with aviation analyst Alex Macheras, who's on the line.

Welcome to the program.

ALEX MACHERAS: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Let's just work with the information that - I know you're gathering information from wherever you can, whatever feels reliable to you, seems reliable to you. As best you can determine, how was it that the hijackers took control?

MACHERAS: So this is the most kind of unclear aspect of what happened today here involving this aircraft. So just to put it into context, this was an A320 operating a domestic flight from Sabha to Tripoli. Now...

INSKEEP: So this is an Airbus A320, a pretty big plane, OK.

MACHERAS: Exactly. So the common short-haul passenger aircraft and it can, you know, fit well over 200 passengers, just under. And actually in this flight today, flying from Sabha to Tripoli, it did not land in Tripoli. We know it flew completely over and made its way towards Malta for a safe landing. Now, there was no hijack squawk declared. For example, when there is a hijacking situation onboard, flight crew let air traffic control know via what's known as a squawk signal. They type in 4 digits and it alerts the air traffic controllers. This didn't happen. It was x when the aircraft touched down in Malta and then, of course, it's been quite a few hours now but some passengers are being released.

INSKEEP: Some passengers are being released because the plane is on the ground in Malta. There have been reports, allegations that there were hand grenades onboard but it sounds like you're not confident that's definitely true.

MACHERAS: I think we'd have to treat these reports with caution purely going on - for example, earlier this year we had an Egypt Air A320 that was hijacked and sent to the island of Cyprus. Similarities, of course, drawn because that was meant to be operating a domestic flight within Northern Africa and then it made its way to an island. Well, that's exactly what has happened today. Now, of course, the outcome of that one was safe and peaceful and the passengers were all let off the aircraft slowly now. And the majority have been let off, but there is reports from the more chief state media, that they would not that the crew off and that the demands are not yet known.

INSKEEP: The demands are not known. And have the hijackers identified themselves in any way whatsoever?

MACHERAS: There's been no news regarding as to who they are. There have been several reports, although unconfirmed, that they are connected to sort of pro-Gadhafi and want Gadhafi's son released from prison. But again, that's not been confirmed. If we do speak to the facts, it is that this was an A320 that was meant to land in Tripoli. It's now in Malta. The majority of the passengers are off, but we know that those who are initiating the hijack - there's believed to be two on board - are still in control of the aircraft. If there's that anything worth noting, it's that when the passengers have been pictured leaving the plane, none of them seem to be running or seem to be - being, you know, that they're safe. They do seem very calm leaving the aircraft so hopefully that's a sign that this should end well.

INSKEEP: And you mentioned unconfirmed reports that this could plausibly have something to do with Moammar Gadhafi, the late ruler of Libya. And, of course, the country has been an increasing chaos ever since he was overthrown and killed a number of years ago. Mr. Macheras, thanks very much. I really appreciate your help.

MACHERAS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Alex Macheras is an aviation analyst and he's giving us the best information we have about the hijacking of a passenger plane. Again, the latest and best information is that the plane landed on the island nation of Malta in the Mediterranean. And now we're hearing reports, as we just did hear, of passengers - some of them - being released. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.