KHARTOUM, Sudan – A man waving a knife hijacked a jetliner carrying about 100 people Tuesday in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region, forcing it to land at a World War II-era airfield in the heart of the Sahara Desert in neighboring Libya, officials said.
The Boeing 737 was commandeered soon after taking off from Nyala, capital of southern Darfur, en route to Khartoum, the national capital, said Yusuf Ibrahim, director of Khartoum’s airport. He said it was not clear whether one or several hijackers were involved.
Libyan aviation officials confirmed the plane landed in Kufra, a desert oasis in that country’s arid southeast close to the Sudanese and Egyptian borders.
Authorities were said to be traveling to Kufra, some 1,000 miles from Libya’s capital of Tripoli. The airfield has little, if any, communications equipment, and Libyan officials said they had been unable to contact the hijackers since the plane landed.
The only contact was earlier from the pilot, who radioed a mayday signal to Tripoli requesting permission to land and refuel, said a Libyan security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media. By midnight, the plane had not refueled and it was unclear whether the Libyans would allow it to do so.
The civil aviation chief in Egypt, Emad Salaam, said the airliner belongs to a private company, Sun Air, and was carrying 95 passengers – a mix of civilians and local Darfur officials – plus an unspecified number of crew members.
The politicians on board were members of the Darfur Transitional Authority, an interim government body responsible for implementing a peace agreement between rebel factions and Sudan’s government, a security official at Nyala airport said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media.
Sudan has had previous hijackings, most recently in January 2007, when a man hijacked a plane taking off from Khartoum and forced the pilot at gunpoint to fly to neighboring Chad, then surrendered. None of the more than 100 passengers was hurt.
But such incidents are rare in Darfur, an impoverished region where up to 300,000 people have died and more than 2.5 million have been displaced since a rebellion began early in 2003.
Although officials said there was no indication of any connection, the hijacking came a day after one of the worst attacks in recent months on a Darfur refugee camp – just 15 miles from Nyala airport, where the plane took off.