Libyan nationals hijack airplane to Malta with 118 passengers; 65 released so far; Update: 109 released; Update: Request asylum in Malta; Update: Surrendered

Suspected members of a pro-Moammar Qaddafi rebel group in Libya seized control of a flight out of Sabha earlier today, forcing the plane to land in Malta. The plane has 118 people on board, and at least two hijackers. According to the Maltese government they threatened to blow up the plane, but have now started releasing their hostages in groups while authorities try to make sure the incident ends peacefully:

Hijackers have begun allowing passengers off a commercial plane that departed from Libya and was diverted to the Mediterranean island of Malta, according to Maltese media.

The Afriqiyah Airways A320 flight was carrying 111 passengers, including a baby, and seven crew members when it was hijacked and diverted to Libya. There are two hijackers on board the plane who are thought to be affiliated with Al Fatah Al Gadida, a pro-Gadhafi group, according to Maltese foreign ministry spokesman Etienne St. John.

Kurt Farrugia, a spokesman for Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, told ABC News that all passengers and crew on board the hijacked plane are to be released soon. He said all of them are Libyan nationals.

CNN reports that the hijackers have let women and children off, but they are still threatening to use the grenades to kill the remaining hostages:

The hijackers, who took over the Afriqiyah Airways flight with 111 passengers on board, allowed a number of women and children to leave the plane.

Malta’s armed forces were leading the negotiations with the hijackers, according to Etienne Saint John, a spokesman for Malta’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“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.”

Fox News has video of some passengers being released — 65 of them, according to the latest count from Malta’s prime minister:

Clearly the terrorists in this case want something, although it’s not quite clear what it might be. What is clear is that the hijacking isn’t the kind of terrorism that we have become accustomed to seeing from radical Islamists, where the entire purpose is to kill as many people as possible. This is more like an old-school form of terrorism, where the point is either to make a political statement and then surrender, or to get some sort of asylum or personal benefit. If these really are Qaddafi dead-enders, they may be looking for a way out of Libya. After all, they’d be stuck between the weak but hostile recognized government in Tripoli and Sirte, and the even more hostile radical Islamists in the rest of the country.

We’ll have more as events dictate.

Update: If the original count was correct, there’s only nine hostages left on the plane:

This would suggest that the hijackers’ main goal isn’t to kill anyone. Why let so many potential victims go?

Update: As I predicted:

Traditionally, Western nations have rejected those demands in order to prevent more hijackings. A few Soviet-aligned countries occasionally would accept asylum requests, if I recall correctly, but it’s been a long time. In fact, the spate of hijackings of this nature ended in large part because of the no-deal policies adopted by most nations. If Malta agrees to it, they’d better build another runway for hijackers to use.

Update: The hijackers have surrendered and everyone’s safe. There’s no word about whether Malta agreed to asylum. The BBC reports on an oddity that took place shortly before the surrender:

A man has emerged from a hijacked Libyan jet waving a flag associated with the late former leader, Muammar Gaddafi, during a stand-off in Malta.

The man appeared after most of the 118 people on board had been released from the Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320. …

Initial information suggests the hijacker is trying to claim political asylum in Malta, the mayor of Sabha, Colonel Hamed al-Khayali, told the BBC.

However, a Libyan television station which says it interviewed a hijacker said he wanted to promote a new pro-Gaddafi party.

“We took this measure to declare and promote our new party,” he was quoted as telling Libya’s Channel, according to the broadcaster’s Twitter account.

Aren’t there more effective ways in which to launch a new political party than committing an act of international air piracy? On the other hand, what better way to promote a neo-Qaddafi party than by launching it with a hijacking?