TRIPOLI, Libya – Two hijackers who commandeered a jetliner from Sudan's Darfur region and diverted it to a remote desert airstrip in southern Libya surrendered Wednesday after a 22-hour standoff, an airline official said.
Sun Air Executive Director Murtada Hassan said he was told of their surrender by officials at the airport in Kufra, Libya, who were involved in the negotiations. He said there were only two hijackers but that others may have slipped out with the 87 passengers who were released earlier.
A Libyan civil aviation official, who was in eyesight of the plane at a building at the airport, later disputed that the hijackers had surrendered, but did not specify why he believed that.
Throughout the incident the number of hijackers and their identities has been unclear.
Officials at the airport in Libya had said they were Darfur rebels, but Hassan said their motives were personal and that they had no connection with any political or rebel groups. Due to security reasons, he said he could not reveal what the personal matters were.
Hijackers commandeered the Boeing 737 jetliner, which was carrying 95 passengers and crew, soon after it took off Tuesday from the southern Darfur town of Nyala, not far from a refugee camp that the Sudanese military attacked on Monday. Rebels took up arms in 2003 against the Khartoum's government, which has been accused of unleashing militia fighters in response.
The plane, which had been en route to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, was diverted to a World War II-era airstrip in Libya's Sahara desert oasis of Kufra.
Some 500 security personnel and police descended on the plane as negotiators worked to free the passengers, said Sudan's consul in Kufra, Mohammed al-Bila Othman, according to Libya's official JANA news agency.
Sudan's Foreign Ministry called the hijacking an "irresponsible terrorist act" and said they wanted the hijackers to be extradited.
The hijackers had been demanded maps to fly to Paris and fuel for the plane, said Kufra airport Director Khaled Sasiya, who spoke to one of the hijackers, the JANA news agency reported.
Sasiya said the man, who identified himself as Yassin, told him that he and his fellow hijackers were from the Darfur rebel Sudan Liberation Movement led by Abdulwahid Elnur, according to the news agency's report.
The rebel leader denied his group was involved.
"We categorically deny that the Sudan Liberation Movement has carried out the hijacking," Elnur said, speaking to Al-Jazeera television by telephone. "We condemn any act that causes harm to any Sudanese civilian."
Asked earlier if French authorities could accept the hijackers arriving in France, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told Europe-1 radio that he could "not say anything now. But we are considering everything so that the passengers, the 100 passengers, are protected."
Kouchner also said that rebel leader Elnur, who lives in Paris, denied he was in contact with the hijackers.
"He says he doesn't know these people and that he absolutely refuses to use such methods," Kouchner said. "It's not his way. He's rather a peaceful man."
Among the passengers were former rebels who have become members of the Darfur Transitional Authority, an interim government body responsible for implementing a peace agreement reached in 2006 between the government and one of the rebel factions, a security official at Nyala airport said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
The chief of police of the southern Darfur province, Maj. Gen. Fathul-Rahamn Othman, told SUNA that the hijacking was meant to "destabilize security and is part of the events taking part in the Darfur provinces."
Darfur's ethnic African rebels have been battling the Arab-led Khartoum government since 2003 in a conflict that the U.N. says has killed up to 300,000 people and driven 2.5 million from their homes.
In the worst attack in months, the Sudanese military on Monday assaulted the Darfur refugee camp of Kalma, near Nyala airport, from where the hijacked plane took off.
A spokesman for Darfur's U.N.-African Union peacekeepers, Nourredine Mezni, said at least 33 people killed in the attack were buried Tuesday, though some U.N. officials said the toll could be higher.
A spokesman for one of the rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement, Ahmed Hussain, said he had reports of 70 dead. He accused the government in the hijacking, saying it was trying to "divert attention" from Monday's attack.