- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

BRINDISI, Italy — A Turkish man hijacked a jetliner carrying 113 persons from Albania to Istanbul yesterday 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 said the hijacker, whom he identified as Hakan Ekinci, was seeking to evade military service in his native Turkey. Istanbul Gov. Muammer Guler 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,” Mr. 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 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 in Brindisi. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

“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., 15 miles north of Thessaloniki, Greece, a spokesman for Greece’s Civil Aviation Authority said.

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 a spokeswoman for the Italian air traffic agency ENAV.

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

Mr. Ekinci had converted to Christianity and was an army deserter and anti-militarist who fled to Albania earlier this year, according to the private Dogan news agency and NTV television in Turkey.

Mr. Ekinci, 28, sent a letter to Benedict on Aug. 30, asking for help to avoid returning to military service in Turkey and saying he was a Christian, Dogan reported.

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