New & now
35 years ago: The EgyptAir hijacking-turned-massacre that stunned Malta & the world
The plane was forced to land at Luqa Airport.

Jillian Mallia

No one would have thought that on 23rd November 1985, something so horrible would occur and get our island involved in the dealings. That fateful night at 8pm, EgyptAir Flight 648 from Athens to Cairo took off as it usually did. But things were about to take a horrific turn.

plane

Malta Disasters / Facebook

Just 10 minutes after take-off, three Palestinian members of Abu Nidal hijacked the plane. The same group would then go on to hijack Pan Am Flight 73 a year later. The terrorists called themselves the Egypt Revolution and were armed with guns and grenades. Omar Rezaq, the terrorist leader, began checking all passports of everyone aboard the flight. It was at this point that Egyptian Security Service agent, Mustafa Kamal opened fire, killing one terrorist before being wounded together with two flight attendants.

plane

Malta Disasters / Facebook

As a result of the gunshots, the fuselage was punctured, causing rapid depressurization on board which resulted in the plane having to descend 14,000 feet to allow passengers to breathe. Libya was actually the original destination for the hijackers, but since the plane didn’t have enough fuel, Malta was the more suitable option.

The Maltese government didn’t give the aircraft permission to land, having previously refused permission to an Alitalia flight in September 1982. The hijackers forced Hani Galal, the pilot, to still land at Luqa Airport. As a last resort to stop the landing, runway lights were switched off, but the pilot managed to land the damaged aircraft safely. But the story doesn’t end there.

plane

Malta Disasters / Facebook

Maltese authorities were optimistic they could put an end to the crisis. The then-Prime Minister, Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici was rushed to the airport control tower to assume lead for the negotiations. He, with the help of an interpreter, refused to refuel the plane until passengers were released. Two injured flight attendants and 11 passengers were allowed off, but the hijackers started shooting hostages. Five passengers were shot and only three survived in the end.

plane

Malta Disasters / Facebook

Various countries offered anti-hijack forces. The US informed the local government that Egypt had a special forces counterterrorism team trained by the Delta Force (US) that was ready to move in once allowed. They were granted permission and flew in under the command of Major General Kamal Attia, led by four American officers.

plane

Malta Disasters / Facebook

The plan was to storm the aircraft on the morning of 25th November when food was to be taken. Soldiers would be dressed as caterers and jam the door open and proceed to attack. However, the Egyptian commandos raided the plane an hour and a half before the planned attack. This killed 54 of the remaining 87 passengers, including two crew members and one hijacker.

plane

Malta Disasters / Facebook

Rezaq (who was injured) remained undetected, having removed his hood and ammunition and disguised himself as one of the passengers but was later tracked down at St Luke’s Hospital. A total of 58 of the 95 passengers on board died, eight of the passengers being shot dead by the commandos.

plane

Malta Disasters / Facebook

Rezaq faced trial in Malta and was given a 25-year sentence of which he served eight. His release caused diplomatic tension between the US and Malta due to law restrictions. He was captured on arrival in Nigeria, and after three months was handed over to the States and sentenced to life imprisonment with no-parole.

A chilling story that still haunts many today.

23rd January 2020


Jillian Mallia
Written by
Jillian Mallia
A book lover, writer and globetrotter who loves exploring new places and the local gems that the Maltese Islands have to offer. An avid foodie and arts fanatic, Jillian searches the island and beyond for the perfect settings to write about.

You may also like...
New & now

Jillian Mallia
New & now
New & now
The term ‘drag queen’ is pretty well known (thank you Ru Paul’s drag race!) but how about ‘drag king’? Well, it’s about to get a whole lot more popular as Malta welcomes award-winning show Joan!

Jo Caruana
New & now
New & now
We meet the man behind the Arizona business, Malta Joe's.

Vanessa Conneely