BRINDISI- A Turkish
man hijacked a jetliner carrying 113 people from Albania to Istanbul on Tuesday
and forced it to land in southern Italy, where he surrendered and released all
the passengers unharmed, officials said.
Two senior Turkish officials said
the hijacker was seeking political asylum. An Italian security official said the
hijacker had a message for the pope, but he said he did not know what it
Candan Karlitekin, chairman of Turkish
Airlines' board of directors, initially said the Boeing 737-400 had been
hijacked by two Turks, and that they were protesting Pope Benedict XVI's planned
visit to Turkey next month.
Transport Minister Binali Yildirim told The
Associated Press that the hijacker, whom he identified as Hakan Ekinci, was
seeking to evade military service in his native Turkey. Istanbul Gov. Muammer
Guler also said the hijacker was an army deserter who had fled to
"It has nothing to do with the pope's visit; it
was a simple attempt of seeking political asylum under the influence of
psychological problems," Yildirim said.
The passengers got off the plane about two
hours after it landed in Brindisi, a town on southern Italy's Adriatic coast.
The jet was on a darkened tarmac, with a fire truck carrying Brindisi airport's
chief of security parked nearby.
The passengers were being questioned one by one
by Italian authorities to confirm their identities and rule out any possibility
that the hijacker had an accomplice.
"The man burst into the cockpit and said
'there's two of us,'" leading authorities to believe the man was not acting
alone, according to the Italian security official based in Brindisi. The
official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak
to the media.
"There was only one hijacker. He surrendered to
authorities at the airport," the official said.
The Turkish captain issued an alert that the
plane was hijacked shortly after it took off from the Albanian capital of Tirana
for Istanbul, and he was contacted by Greek air traffic controllers at 5:55 p.m.
(10:55 a.m. EDT), 15 miles north of Thessaloniki, Greece, said Dimitris
Stavropoulos, spokesman for Greece's Civil Aviation Authority.
The plane later contacted Italian air traffic
controllers and asked to land in Brindisi, and it was escorted to the ground by
two Italian military jets, according to Nicoletta Tomiselli, a spokeswoman for
the Italian air traffic agency ENAV.
Salvatore Sciacchitano, deputy director of the
ENAC civil aviation agency, said the plane had been carrying 107 passengers and
a crew of six.
The Italian security official said the hijacker
was seeking to have a message delivered to the pope, but said he did not know
what it was.
Ekinci had converted to Christianity and was an
army deserter and anti-militarist who fled to Albania in 2006, according to the
private Dogan news agency and NTV television in Turkey.
Ekinci, 28, sent a letter to Benedict on Aug.
30, asking for help not to return to military service in Turkey, saying he was a
Christian, Dogan reported.
"I am Hakan Ekinci, I am a Christian and I
never want to serve in a Muslim army," he was quoted as saying in a letter to
Benedict, according to Dogan, which said it had obtained the letter on a blog
posted on the Internet. "I am begging you for help as the spiritual leader of
us, Christians' world."
"I have been a churchgoer since 1998, I found
the true path in Jesus and in the Bible," Ekinci reportedly wrote.
Guler confirmed that the hijacker was the same
person who posted letters on the Internet.