cyprus airplane egypt.jpg
Photograph: EPA/KATIA CHRISTODOULOU

The hijacker of the Egyptian passenger jet forced to land in Cyprus on Tuesday was still holding seven hostages aboard, Egypt's aviation minister told reporters in Cairo on Tuesday.

The hostages were the plane's pilot and co-pilot, an air hostess, a security officer and three passengers, Sherif Fathy said.

"I can't say more than that or say what their nationalities are. This is a security issue," Fathy said in response to questions about the identity of the three remaining passengers.

The man hijacked EgyptAir flight 181 from Alexandria to Cairo, forcing the plane to land at Larnaca International Airport on Tuesday morning.

There have been conflicting reports as to the number of passengers aboard the plane and the current number of hostages.

The Egyptian minister said that there were 55 passengers aboard the plane, while earlier reports had spoken of 56 or 81 passengers.

Also, the Egyptian Civil Aviation Ministry had earlier said in a statement that negotiations with the hijacker resulted in the release of all people on board except five foreigners and part of the flight crew. An English version of the statement had mentioned four foreigners.

Fathy said that the hijacker has not yet presented clear demands and negotiations were still ongoing.

He added that it was not yet known whether the hijacker's claimed explosives belt was real or fake, but for the safety of those on board the aircraft authorities acted on the basis that it was real.

It was ascertained that the hijacker had no firearms, Fathy said.

The Minister did not give the hijacker's name. However, Egypt's state TV reported that he was an Egyptian national named Ibrahim Samaha, showing a picture of him taken in the plane cabin.

Meanwhile, negotiators continued to speak with the hijacker, who said he wanted to speak with his ex-wife, according to Cypriot TV. 

He is said to have demanded police hand over a letter written in Arabic to his ex-wife in Larnaca, according to the report.

Unconfirmed news reports in Egypt said that the hijacker had also sought political asylum in Cyprus.

Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiades had earlier said on state TV that the hijacking of the jet flight was not a terrorist act.

Larnaca airport, located on Cyprus' southern coast, has been closed until further notice, according to the RIK report. All flights to Cyprus have been diverted to Paphos in the west of the island.

Cyprus has opened a crisis hotline for those affected by the incident.

The plane highjacking comes as Cairo hopes Moscow will remove 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.

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