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EgyptAir Hijacking Ends With Arrest And Questions Of Security

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It was a dramatic morning for passengers on EgyptAir flight 181 bound for Cairo from the coastal city of Alexandria. A man claiming to be wearing an explosive belt forced the pilot to divert the jet to Cyprus. It turned out the belt was a fake. The man was arrested, and no one was harmed. But the incident raised concerns about flights in Egypt and elsewhere. NPR's Leila Fadel covers Cairo and joins us on the phone from Morocco, where she's on assignment And, Leila, how did this whole hijacking end?

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Well, once the hijacker, an Egyptian former Army officer named Seif Eldin Mustafa, forced the plane to land in Larnaca airport, he let most of the passengers go pretty quickly.

And then in those final moments, there were a few passengers that walked out of the - off the plane, and a crew member that climbed out of the cockpit window to escape. And moments later, Mustafa got off that plane and gave himself up.

MCEVERS: So was this an act of terrorism?

FADEL: No, it was not a terrorist attack. The Cypriot president was very clear that he didn't see this as an act of terror. And he even joked, some would say inappropriately, about how it always involves a woman - in this case, the hijackers ex-wife, who he'd asked for during negotiations. Here's what the Cypriot government spokesman, Nicos Christodoulides, had to say about the hijacker when I spoke to him.

NICOS CHRISTODOULIDES: It is clear and obvious from his behavior and his actions that it led us to the conclusion that he's a person of unstable psychological situation.

FADEL: He says during negotiations Mustafa kept changing his mind about what he wanted. So at one point he wanted political asylum, then he wanted to speak to someone in the European Union. Then he wanted to go to Turkey. Then he wanted to see his ex-wife. They actually brought his ex-wife to the airport.

MCEVERS: I mean, but he did get a fake bomb on this plane. What does that say about security at Egypt's airports?

FADEL: Yeah, he didn't have a bomb, but he sure did get something on the plane that looked like one in pictures that were posted online. So he was wearing this wide canvas belt with wires spilling out of it. And Egypt's doing what it can to show that there was no security lapse on their part. So the government has released a video of the man they say is the hijacker going through a metal detector, getting patted down.

So this hijacking for Egypt at least is really coming at a tough time because late last year, a bomb did bring down a Russian jetliner filled tourists, and that raised serious questions about security at Egypt's airports.

MCEVERS: And what about the passengers on today's flight? How are they doing?

FADEL: Well, Egypt sent a plane to pick them up, and tonight was a really emotional scene at Cairo's airport - families hugging and crying with their loved ones. Among those passengers was Noha Saleh. She spoke to us. She's one of the passengers. She was in pretty good spirits. And she says when the plane was diverted off its path, they were told it was a mechanical problem. And it's only when they landed in Cyprus that the crew finally told the passengers the plane had been hijacked.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NOHA SALEH: Of course, like any other person, you feel like your life, it will be, like, done after five minutes. But it was weird that all of us we use our phones and we can connect with our family, telling them what's happening around.

FADEL: She said the hijackers stayed in the back and didn't really communicate with any of the passengers and he spoke to the crew pretty exclusively and that, really, it was the EgyptAir crew that kept everyone calm and got them through this all.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Leila Fadel on today's hijacking of an EgyptAir flight. Thank you very much.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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