Turkish Airlines plane hijacked, lands in Italy

A Turkish man seeking political asylum hijacked a jetliner carrying 113 people, forcing the pilots to fly to Italy, where he later surrendered and released the passengers unharmed.

Security officials in the southern Italian city of Brindisi, where the plane landed, said the unarmed hijacker, identified by Turkish authorities as Hakan Ekinci, was seeking to have a message delivered to Pope Benedict XVI, but said he did not know what that message was.

Giuseppe Giannuzzi, chief prosecutor in the nearby city of Lecce, told reporters that Ekinci had identified himself as a Christian, but the prosecutor said he did not have more details since the Turk had not yet been questioned.

Turkish officials said Ekinci was an army deserter seeking political asylum, and added that earlier statements by some officials that he had hijacked the plane to protest the pope's upcoming visit to Turkey were incorrect.

"From the onset of the events, there was no verified information that the hijacking was related to the pope visit," Turkish Transport Minister Binali Yildirim told The Associated Press.

The Turkish ambassador, Ugur Ziyal, was quoted Wednesday by the state-owned Anatolia new agency as saying that it was a unique incident.

"The important point in this action is that this is definitely an individual action. As far as we know, the hijacker was unarmed," Ziyal said.

Ziyal said it was important not to link the incident to Turkey and the papal visit.

"The plane hijacking is an individual action by a man who was acting alone. On top of that, it is reported that he is not a Muslim but a Christian who was seeking the pope's help."

The Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-400, flying from Albania to Istanbul, was hijacked in Greek airspace. It landed at Italy's Brindisi airport under escort by two Italian military planes.

"The man burst into the cockpit and said, 'There's two of us,"' leading authorities initially to believe the man was not acting alone, said an Italian security official based in Brindisi. The official, speaking by telephone, gave details about the hijacking on condition his name not be used 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.

Another official, who also could not have his name used, said no weapons were found on Ekinci and police searching the plane also found no weapons.

The passengers were being questioned one by one to confirm their identities and rule out any possibility that the suspect had an accomplice, and were being flown to Istanbul sometime during the night.

Passenger Albert Okalari of Tirana, Albania, told reporters at the airport that passengers were unaware they were being hijacked until after the plane landed in Brindisi.

"They told us there was a engine problem and that the Istanbul airport was closed. Then the pilot changed directions, and I saw he was going west because I could see the sun," Okalari said.

He said passengers switched their cell phones on as soon as they landed, and immediately started getting reports that they had been hijacked, or that there was a problem with the plane. He only noticed the hijacker when the man was about to leave.

"We saw someone who said goodbye to us when he disembarked before we did, and we all clapped at him," Okalari said.

Istanbul's governor, Muammer Guler, said Ekinci was an army deserter who had fled to Albania and was seeking political asylum. He said the Turkish Consulate in the Albanian capital had alerted Turkish authorities earlier on Tuesday that Ekinci had been denied political asylum there and was on the flight back to Turkey.

Had Ekinci arrived in Istanbul as scheduled he would have been detained for being a deserter, Guler said.

Ekinci, 28, had written to Pope Benedict in August to seek the pontiff's help to avoid military service in his home country, Turkey's state-owned Anatolia news agency reported.

Other Turkish news reports said Ekinci had also converted from Islam to Christianity.

Salvatore Sciacchitano, deputy director of Italy's ENAC civil aviation agency, said the plane had been carrying 107 passengers and six crew.