Sol­diers tell of mo­ment sus­pects de­scended from plane and sur­ren­dered

Malta Independent - - FRONT PAGE - Neil Camil­leri

The com­pi­la­tion of ev­i­dence against the Afriqiyah Air­ways hi­jack­ers re­sumed yes­ter­day be­fore Mag­is­trate An­thony Vella. A num­ber of sol­diers re­counted the mo­ment the al­leged hi­jack­ers de­scended from the plane and gave them­selves up.

Libyans Moussa Saha Ali Soko and Ali Ahmed Saleh deny hi­jack­ing the plane, pos­ses­sion of im­i­ta­tion weapons, us­ing vi­o­lence against a per­son on board the flight, hold­ing peo­ple against their will, mak­ing threats of vi­o­lence and at­tempt­ing to cause fi­nan­cial or eco­nomic in­sta­bil­ity for a govern­ment or in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tion. If they are found guilty of the first charge they can be im­pris­oned for life.

The hi­jack took place on 23 De­cem­ber. The two men sur­ren­dered to the Armed Forces of Malta’s counter-ter­ror unit sev­eral hours af­ter the seized air­craft landed in Malta. It later turned out that they had used replica pis­tols and grenades.

Last week the court heard how many pas­sen­gers were un­aware of the hi­jack and thought the plane had been di­verted to Malta due to bad weather. Some only learnt of the hi­jack when the whole or­deal was over. It also emerged that the hi­jack was rather silent, and the hi­jack­ers had handed to the crew a note with the words: “Land in Rome or we will blow up the plane.”

The court was also told that the cap­tain and a stew­ardess were also taken to the po­lice HQ for in­ter­ro­ga­tion, and that the for­mer had taken a pic­ture of her­self with the hi­jack­ers with her mo­bile phone.

A doc­u­ment found on the plane said Mr Moussa was the leader of a new po­lit­i­cal group – Al Fatah Al Ja­did. The name of the party is linked to the 1969 coup in which Colonel Muam­mar Gaddafi seized power in Libya.

A sol­dier, whose name and rank can­not be pub­lished for rea­sons of na­tional se­cu­rity, said he was part of the team wait­ing below the air­plane. He and a col­league ar­rested one of the hi­jack­ers, Saleh, while two oth­ers ar­rested the sec­ond hi­jacker.

“We per­formed a quick search on his per­son, then put him in the ve­hi­cle. He was car­ry­ing a mo­bile phone and some money.”

Later, the team boarded the plane to see if any­one else was in­side but the air­craft was empty.

Dr Pa­trick Valentino, who is le­gal aid lawyer to Ali Saleh, asked how the ac­cused had been iden­ti­fied as a hi­jacker. “He gave him­self up. He iden­ti­fied him­self up by sep­a­rat­ing him­self from the group and putting his hands up.”

“So would you have ar­rested any­one else had they also put their hands up?” the lawyer asked. “Yes, I would have,” the sol­dier replied.

Re­ply­ing to ques­tions by Dr Joe El­lis, who is ap­pear­ing for Mr Moussa, the wit­ness said the ac­cused had not re­sisted ar­rest and had been taken to a spe­cial hold­ing area af­ter they were hand­cuffed.

A sec­ond sol­dier said the ac­cused were iden­ti­fied be­cause they were wear­ing dif­fer­ent clothes – the oth­ers were Afriqiyah staff. “The sus­pect in front of me (Saleh) did not ap­pear to be hold­ing any­thing in his hands,” he said, when asked by Mag­is­trate An­thony Vella.

The sol­dier said the hi­jack­ers came down the steps to­gether with the plane crew but could not tell if the air­line em­ploy­ees were fright­ened or tense. “We were fo­cused on the sus­pect, watch­ing out for a weapon.” Pressed by Dr Valentino, the wit­ness said the crew did not look scared.

An of­fi­cer from the Ex­plo­sive Ord­nance Dis­posal unit took the wit­ness stand next. He said EOD mem­bers helped search the sus­pects and later boarded the plane for the first search. “We found no ex­plo­sives in­side the plane but one of the hi­jack­ers had dropped a gun and a grenade on the ground below the plane.” These were taken by the foren­sics team. “Our main aim was to search for booby traps, and we found none of those.” All cabin bags were searched but noth­ing sus­pi­cious was found.

An­other EOD mem­ber said what ap­peared to be a plas­tic re­volver was found wrapped in­side a plas­tic bag in­side a pas­sen­ger bag on one of the seats. The gun was found near the front en­trance of the plane. Asked if the gun was a fake, the sol­dier said he could not con­firm this since his task was to check whether the item was booby trapped.

An­other wit­ness said he had ex­am­ined a Beretta pis­tol that had been dis­carded on the apron. He could not tell whether this was a fake but an X-ray re­vealed there were no rounds in­side. A sec­ond pis­tol, smaller in size, was also checked and de­clared safe to han­dle. The wit­ness said he did not know who had placed the weapons there.

At the start of yes­ter­day’s sit­ting, lawyer Martin Fenech said he had been in­structed by the Le­gal Aid Agency to as­sist Ali Ahmed Saleh. Mr Saleh has al­ready been as­signed lawyer Pa­trick Valentino as le­gal aid. The lawyer said he had not been in­formed about any­thing from the agency. He asked the court to write to the govern­ment and the agency for an ex­pla­na­tion as to why a sec­ond le­gal aid lawyer was be­ing as­signed to Saleh. Mag­is­trate An­thony Vella said that since the ac­cused has not made any re­quests he is duly rep­re­sented at law. As such Dr Fenech was dis­missed.

Asked by the court if me­dia re­ports about a hunger strike by the ac­cused were true, Dr Valentino said the Libyans were eat­ing but one has a med­i­cal con­di­tion and when they sent a doc­tor they did not send a trans­la­tor so they could not un­der­stand each other.

Dr Joe El­lis, ap­pear­ing for Mr Moussa, said his client was not be­ing al­lowed to watch TV with the other prison­ers and could not con­tact his par­ents.

The case con­tin­ues on 19 Jan­uary.

The crew did not look scared

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