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 was.
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 Albania.
"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.