The Turk who hijacked a Turkish Airlines plane to Italy feared for his safety because he converted to Christianity and wanted to deliver a message for Pope Benedict XVI but had no physical letter, Italy’s interior minister told politicians in Rome today.
“The reason he insisted on landing in Rome or in Brindisi was to get a missive to the pope,” Minister Giuliano Amato told the Senate in a briefing on yesterday’s hijacking.
Turkish officials gave assurances today that all necessary security measures would be taken during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Turkey next month.
The Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-400, with 113 people aboard was reported hijacked over Greek airspace yesterday evening on a flight from Tirana, Albania, to Istanbul, Turkey, and landed in the southern Italian Adriatic port city of Brindisi after Italian air force fighter pilots scrambled to escort the aircraft through Italian air space.
The hijacker slipped into the cockpit when flight attendants opened the cockpit door, said Amato, whose ministry is responsible for state police and civilian intelligence services.
The man handed the pilot a note, claiming that he had a message for the Pope and that other hijackers aboard another, unspecified plane “would blow that plane up if the missive didn’t get to the Pope,” Amato said.
Amato said the incident showed “the fragility” of the Turkish airline security.
“We all have in mind the Pope’s visit to Turkey in the coming weeks,” Amato said, a pilgrimage which will “present delicate security problems.”
However, the minister said that he didn’t think the hijacking in itself had increased the security threat level during the Pope’s planned visit in late November.
“We’re taking all necessary security measures for the Pope’s visit,” Turkey’s ambassador to Italy, Ugur Ziyal, told Turkey’s state-owned news agency Anatolia.
“I don’t think there are particular risks but we all know what terrorist can do,” the ambassador said.
“That’s why we are taking necessary measures for the safety of the Pope,” Ziyal said without elaborating. However, “there are no special risks for Benedict XVI. The Pope will be welcomed warmly.”
Although the hijacker was found to have acted alone, police interviewed passengers for hours and combed the aircraft and baggage for any weapons to make sure the hijacker had no accomplice.
At about dawn today, the passengers were flown to Turkey.
Turkish officials identified the hijacker as Hakan Ekinci, 28.
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 forthcoming visit to Turkey were incorrect.
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 yesterday 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 the Pope 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.
Benedict angered the Muslim world in a speech in Germany on September 12, when he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor as saying: “Show me just what (the Prophet) Muhammad 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 said it had 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 said a Vatican announcement that the trip would take place would be made soon.