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Troubled Italian Held in Hijack Attempt Over Alps

The ex-policeman has a history of mental illness and had commandeered a plane and a train in the past, authorities say. No one is injured.

November 28, 2002|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — A former Italian policeman with a history of mental illness and hijacking attempts threatened to blow up a passenger jet Wednesday, causing the plane to land in the French city of Lyon, police said. He was subdued without anyone being injured.

Police found no weapons on the man, who had claimed to have a bomb and brandished a television remote control that he said was a device to trigger an explosion. Although he declared aboard the plane that he was an Al Qaeda terrorist, law enforcement officials said the incident had no connection to Al Qaeda or any other terrorist organization.

Instead, authorities said Stefano Savorani, 29, was apparently driven by the same psychological torments that caused him to commandeer an Italian train in 1998 and an Air France flight from Marseille to Paris in 1999.

"Oh no, he's done it again," Savorani's mother, Orella, exclaimed when she learned of her son's arrest, according to the Italian news agency ANSA. "I've been anxious for hours because he didn't come home for lunch."

Press reports quoted her as saying her son, who is from a town near Bologna, Italy, had received treatment for schizophrenia. Savorani spent six years with the Italian investigative police but was dismissed in 1998 because of mental problems, authorities said.

Despite the bloodless resolution, the incident aboard the Paris-bound flight from Bologna caused widespread alarm. As warnings about terrorist plots and arrests of suspected Al Qaeda members multiply, Europeans are on high alert.

France is considered a prime target because of the longtime presence of Islamic extremists in the country. Italians worry about an increase in terrorism and about a recent threat in which Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden named Italy along with other West European countries.

The ordeal aboard the Alitalia MD-80 began soon after the plane took off for Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. When the plane was over the Swiss Alps, Savorani allegedly got up and began making threats, French authorities said. He said he would blow up the plane, ranted about Al Qaeda and Bin Laden and demanded to talk to journalists, authorities said.

French police said the jet carried 67 passengers and a crew of seven, while Alitalia reported that there were 57 passengers.

After a conversation with Savorani, the pilot advised the tower at Lyon's Saint Exupery Airport that he intended to land there.

When the plane landed, the hijacker allowed all but two hostages to disembark using emergency slides, authorities said.

Savorani was among the last to emerge. He was quickly overpowered by the SWAT team at the bottom of a slide, said Yves Guillot, a public safety administrator in Lyon. "This man did not surrender. He came down behind two people who he said were his hostages, and he was holding what he said was a bomb ready to explode."

Italy's civil aviation director said that because Savorani did not have a weapon, the incident did not result from deficiencies in airport security. However, questions were raised about whether airlines or airports should be able to detect a passenger with a record of hijacking attempts.

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