Italian police were yesterday trying to discover what led a Kazakh diplomat to apparently attempt the hijacking of an Alitalia flight late on Sunday evening. Valery Tolmachev, believed to be an adviser to Kazakhstan's mission to Unesco, allegedly threatened a flight attendant on board the Paris-Rome flight with a small knife or nail file, and demanded that the pilot divert the aircraft to Tripoli, the Libyan capital.
With the flight at cruising altitude on the short journey from Paris to Rome, witnesses on board said Mr Tolmachev, 48, grabbed a member of the cabin crew, put a small, sharp object to her throat, and threatened to kill her if the aircraft did not change course. He was wrestled away from the attendant by passengers and given a sedative, according to reports, with the flight continuing as normal to Rome. The airline said in a statement that an "agitated" passenger had "assaulted a flight attendant and asked that the plane be taken to Tripoli".
A woman passenger said: "I didn't see the beginning, I just heard a voice saying, 'Be quiet!' and then a flight attendant being held by him, with something like a knife to her throat. She was really cool and calm, and the man was just laughing. At first we did not realise what was happening, but then some men stepped up and blocked him."
On landing in Rome, Mr Tolmachev, wearing a white tracksuit top and covering his face from television cameras, was escorted from the airport by police and taken for questioning. Police said they had ruled out terrorism as a motive. The Kazakhstan embassy in Rome said yesterday that it had not yet made contact with Mr Tolmachev and could not confirm his identity.
Friends of Mr Tolmachev expressed amazement at the alleged incident. "I don't know how he could have done this," said Rustem Tursunbayev, an anti-nuclear campaigner from Kazakhstan, who said he was in frequent contact with Mr Tolmachev. "There are only two possibilities – "either he's gone mad, or someone stole his documents and the person who has been detained isn't him."
Vladimir Sergeyev, a Unesco colleague of Mr Tolmachev, suggested family problems or drink might be behind the incident. He told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti that Mr Tolmachev had been on a business trip to France, and had previously worked in the Kazakhstan embassy to Italy. He described Mr Tolmachev – whose father was a well-known writer during the Soviet era – as "a well-mannered, literary and intelligent person" who had written several books on culture.
Mr Sergeyev suspected that the alleged hijacking attempt was caused by "personal problems" or simply that Mr Tolmachev had got drunk before boarding the flight.
"I think Libya was probably the first thing that came into his head, rather than having any real significance," he said.
Other employees at Kazakhstan's mission to Unesco confirmed that Mr Tolmachev had not previously shown any particular interest in Libya.
The flight attendant was treated at the airport for minor injuries, and nobody else was hurt in the incident. Mr Tolmachev remained in custody in Civitavecchia, outside Rome, last night.