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Hijacker Surrenders After Forcing Plane to Italy

October 04, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — The hijacking of a Turkish airliner by at least one unarmed Turk reported to have a message for Pope Benedict XVI ended peacefully Tuesday night, with the passengers released unharmed and the suspect in custody.

The hijacked Boeing 737-400 landed on Italy's Adriatic coast, near the city of Brindisi, with 113 people aboard. It was en route to Istanbul, Turkey, from the Albanian capital of Tirana when it was diverted over Greece.

Initial reports said two hijackers were involved and they were protesting the pope's upcoming visit to Turkey. The pontiff made statements last month that cast Islam in a bad light, triggering Muslim demonstrations around the world.

Later reports said there was one hijacker, a man identified as a Christian who said he wanted to communicate with the pope. According to this account, the hijacker asked for political asylum in Italy.

As authorities were piecing together details and motives, harried but relieved passengers emerged from the aircraft, parked on an isolated runway at the Brindisi airport. There were no indications that the hijacker threatened to harm passengers.

The hijacker stormed into the cockpit of the Turkish Airlines plane about 20 minutes after takeoff from Tirana, Istanbul Deputy Gov. Vedat Muftuoglu told Turkish television. The man apparently claimed that he had an accomplice in the cabin, leading authorities to think two hijackers were involved.

"They told the pilots that they wanted to carry out an act to protest the pope, and that they wanted the plane diverted to Rome and that [the pilots] should not resist," Muftuoglu said.

Other senior Turkish and Italian officials discounted the idea that anger over the pope's comments had motivated the hijacking.

Passengers became aware that something was happening when the plane made a sharp turn. One, a member of the Albanian parliament, used his cellphone to talk to Turkish and Italian reporters.

"Of course there is panic around," said Sadri Abazi, the lawmaker. "People are afraid -- no information at all -- but no one has been injured."

From the start, the hijacker indicated that he would surrender when the flight reached Rome, authorities said. The pilots, saying there wasn't enough fuel, landed the aircraft instead near Brindisi. The plane was escorted by Italian fighter jets.

Brief negotiations between the hijacker and Italian authorities followed, and the man surrendered.

He was identified by Turkish officials as Hakan Ekinci, a convert to Christianity and a draft dodger who was soliciting the pope's help to avoid military duty. He reportedly hated the idea of serving in an army in a predominantly Muslim country.

Once Ekinci was in custody, passengers exited the plane and were questioned and forced to show identification to make sure there was no accomplice.

Initial reports that the hijacking was motivated by anger over the pope's plan to visit Turkey on Nov. 28 raised alarms from Rome to Istanbul. The Vatican said that it was monitoring the hijacking but that Benedict's trip was still on track.

Benedict angered the Muslim world with a speech in his native Bavaria last month in which he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor saying that the teachings of the prophet Muhammad were "evil and inhuman."

The pope has since apologized for the furor triggered by his speech, which he said was an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue among the world's religions.

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wilkinson@latimes.com

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