KHARTOUM, Sudan – A man waving a knife hijacked a plane with about 100 passengers in Sudan's troubled Darfur region Tuesday, forcing it to land at a World War II airfield in the heart of the Sahara desert.
The Boeing 737 was seized soon after taking off from Nyala, the capital of southern Darfur, en route to Khartoum, and was diverted to Libya, said Yusuf Ibrahim, director of Khartoum's airport.
Ibrahim said it was not clear whether one or several hijackers were involved.
Libyan aviation officials confirmed that the plane landed in Kufra, a desert oasis in the country's arid southeast, close to the Sudanese and Egyptian borders. Authorities said they were traveling some 1,000 miles from the capital Tripoli to investigate.
The airfield has little, if any, communications equipment, and Libyan officials said they were still unable to contact the hijackers several hours after the plane landed.
The civil aviation chief in neighboring 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 crew members.
The politicians on board were members of the Darfur Transitional Authority, an interim goverment tasked with implementing a peace agreement between rebel factions and the Sudanese government, according to a security official at Nyala airport. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorize to talk to media.
It was not Sudan's first hijacking. In January 2007, a man hijacked a plane taking off from Khartoum and forced the pilot at gunpoint to fly to neighboring Chad, where he surrendered. None of the more than 100 passengers was hurt.
But such incidents are rare in Darfur, where infrastructure is poor and up to 300,000 people have died and more than 2.5 million have been displaced since a rebellion began in 2003.
The hijacking came a day after one of the worst attacks in recent months on a Darfur refugee camp 15 miles from Nyala airport, where the plane took off.
Sudanese soldiers attacked the Kalma camp at dawn Monday, killing dozens of civilians, witnesses said. A spokesman for U.N.-African Union peacekeepers, Nourredine Mezni, said at least 33 victims were buried Tuesday.
Officials said the raid and hijacking did not appear to be related.