cyprus airplane egypt.jpg
Photograph: EPA/KATIA CHRISTODOULOU

Egyptian authorities defended their security measures Tuesday evening as the passengers from an EgyptAir jet returned home after being diverted to Cyprus by a hijacker wearing a dummy explosive belt.

The Egyptian Interior Ministry issued video of the alleged hijacker, identified as Seif al-Din Mustafa, 57, passing through security checks at Alexandria's Borg al-Arab airport prior to boarding the Tuesday morning flight to Cairo.

Mustafa and his carry-on baggage had both been subject to full security checks, but he later assembled the fake bomb from permitted personal belongings in the bag, the ministry said.

Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kassoulidis earlier said the hijacker had connected several mobile phone covers with cables, which he passed off as an explosive belt.

"We were suspicious but wanted to play it safe," Kassoulidis told journalists at Larnaca airport after the man surrendered.

Mustafa released most of the passengers and crew not long after the plane landed but held seven as hostages before giving himself up hours later.

According to Cypriot state television, he initially demanded the release of detained female Egyptian opposition activists and requested asylum in Europe for himself.

He asked to speak with his Cypriot ex-wife, in a letter dropped out of an airplane window, which the Cypriot police subsequently translated from Arabic, the broadcaster said.

The airport surveillance video, which appeared to be partly cut, showed a person identified by a red circle undergoing a lengthy search, apparently at the entrance to the airport's check-in area, and being dealt with by two separate officers.

In Egyptian airports, that initial search is usually a quick frisk with more thorough checks carried out at the departure gate. The Interior Ministry did not say why Mustafa was apparently searched at length.

The video then showed Mustafa undergoing a quicker search at what appeared to be the departure gate. The ministry published what it said was the x-ray image of his carry-on bag.

Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathy praised the crew of Flight 181, saying they had dealt with the situation professionally.

Speaking while the hostage situation was ongoing, Fathy had said that it was unclear whether the hijacker's explosive belt was real but for the sake of the passengers' safety it was necessary to act on the basis that it was genuine.

The Interior Ministry said Mustafa had a criminal record for forgery and was suspected in a number of fraud, theft and narcotics cases.

The flight's 55 passengers and 15 crew arrived back in Cairo airport on a special flight about 9:30 pm (1930 GMT). Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail was waiting to receive them.

The hijacked airliner was flown back separately by a fresh crew after technical and security checks, sources in the airport said.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi phoned Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to thank him for his country's efforts to resolve the hijacking.

The incident comes at a sensitive time for Cairo, which is seeking to persuade Russia to lift a flight ban imposed after a Russian jet returning from the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh exploded, killing all 224 people on board.

The explosion was claimed by the Islamic State extremist group and led Russia to ban all direct flights to Egypt, a critical blow to the country's beleaguered tourism sector, which has been largely reliant on Russian customers in recent years.

The sector suffered direct losses of between 280 million and 300 million dollars monthly as a result of the ban, according to then-tourism minister Hisham Zaazou.

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