The two Turkish hijackers of a Turkish Airlines jet carrying 113 people from Albania to Istanbul have surrendered to Italian police, Ansa News Agency reported tonight.
The two were trying to deliver a message to Pope Benedict XVI protesting his planned trip to Turkey.
The Boeing 737-400, which was hijacked in Greek airspace after taking off from Albania, landed at Italy’s Brindisi airport, and Italian aviation officials said authorities were negotiating with the apparently unarmed hijackers for the release of the passengers.
Istanbul Deputy Gov. Vedat Muftuoglu said the hijackers stormed into the cockpit about 15-20 minutes after take off from Tirana and asked the pilots to fly to Rome, but Italian warplanes forced it to land in Brindisi.
“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 they (the pilots) should not resist,” Mustuoglu told Turkey’s CNN-Turk television.
The captain told the hijackers that the aircraft did not have sufficient fuel and the plane was diverted to Brindisi.
“They seem to be not particularly hostile nor do they appear to be armed,” said Salvatore Sciacchitano, deputy director of the ENAC civil aviation agency. “They are negotiating right now for the release of passengers.”
Turkish authorities identified one of the hijackers as Hakan Ekinci. The other’s first name was Mahmut, but his family name was not known.
Lights were out on the tarmac, and a fire truck carrying Brindisi’s chief of security pulled up near the plane. Sadri Abazi, an Albanian lawmaker aboard the hijacked plane told Albania’s private News24 TV that all passengers were safe and “there is no threat.”
Candan Karlitekin, chairman of Turkish Airlines’ board of director confirmed Turkish news reports that the aircraft was hijacked by two Turks in protest of Pope Benedict XVI visit to Turkey next month.
Sciacchitano said the hijackers wanted to make a statement to the pope.
Benedict angered the Muslim world in a speech in Germany on Sept. 12, when he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor as saying: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
Benedict has expressed regret for offending Muslims by his remarks and said they did not reflect his personal views, but he has not offered a complete apology as some had sought.
The Vatican today said it has been going ahead with plans for the trip and a Vatican official, asked about the hijacking, said he expected no changes in the pope’s plans for the visit. The official, who asked that his name not be used because of the sensitivity of the issue, said an official Vatican announcement that the trip would take place November 28-December 1 would be made soon.
“Preparations are going ahead,” said another Vatican official, spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi. “It is our hope the trip will be made as planned.”
In Turkey, Vatican embassy official Monsignor Georges Marovitch expressed concern at the hijacking.
“We’re worried, these are not nice things,” Marovitch said. “But if the Turkish state gives a guarantee for his security then I guess he would come.”
A spokesman for the Greek military’s general staff said four Greek fighter jets had been scrambled to shadow the plane after it issued a distress signal over Greek airspace.
The plane’s captain issued an alert and was contacted by Greek air traffic controllers at 5.55pm (3.55pm Irish Time) 15 miles north of Thessaloniki, Stravropoulos said.
The captain told the Greek controllers: “I have two undesirable people who want to go to Italy to see the pope and give him a message,” Stravropoulos said.
The plane, which had been en route to Istanbul from Tirana, then contacted Italian air traffic controllers and asked to land in Brindisi, according to Nicoletta Tomiselli, a spokeswoman for the Italian air traffic agency ENAV.
She said the aircraft was escorted to the ground by two Italian military planes.