A Turkish army deserter seeking political asylum hijacked a Turkish airliner with 113 people on board Tuesday. After forcing the pilot to divert the Istanbul-bound plane to Italy, the hijacker surrendered.
The 30-year-old Turkish man, Hakan Ekinci, appears to have hijacked a Turkish Airlines plane on his own. Police were questioning passengers of the hijacked plane into the night to see if he had any accomplices.
The plane, with 107 passengers on board and a crew of six, had taken off from the Albanian capital of Tirana and was headed to Istanbul. It was in Greek airspace when the pilot twice sent off the coded signal saying his plane had been hijacked.
The hijacker appeared to be unarmed but was making threats, saying he was going to blow up the plane. He demanded that the pilot fly to Rome because he had a message for Pope Benedict XVI.
Initially it was reported that there were two hijackers and that they wanted to protest the pope's visit to Turkey in November. But Turkish authorities were quick to deny this.
Soon after the hijack alert, Greek and Italian military aircraft intercepted the plane and forced it to land in the southern Italian airport of Brindisi.
After brief negotiations, the hijacker surrendered and all the passengers were released unharmed. Some of them said they had not even realized that the plane had been hijacked. Civil aviation official Salvatore Sciacchitano confirmed this.
He said the atmosphere on board the plane was always serene. There were no moments of serious tension or alarm.
Before he surrendered to Italian police, the hijacker apologized to the passengers. After he turned himself in, it became clear he had acted on his own and had wanted to contact Pope Benedict to seek help in avoiding military service.
The Turk had already written to the pope in August. In his letter he wrote he was a Christian and never wanted to serve in a Muslim army. He urged the pope to help him as the spiritual leader of the Christian world.