Turks hijack jet 'in attempt to escape military service'

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A Turkish man hoping to avoid military service seized control of a passenger plane flying from Albania to Istanbul yesterday and forced the plane to land in Italy.

The man, who had claimed to be armed with a bomb, stormed the cockpit and diverted the airliner to Brindisi in southern Italy, where he surrendered and released all 113 passengers and crew unharmed.

Officials initially said the aircraft had been hijacked by two men protesting against Pope Benedict XVI's planned visit to Turkey next month. But last night the Turkish Transport minister, Binali Yildirim, said the plane had been commandeered by a lone hijacker who was seeking political asylum in order to avoid military service.

"It has nothing to do with the Pope's visit; it was a simple attempt of seeking political asylum under the influence of psychological problems," he said.

The five-hour hijacking began shortly after the plane took off from Tirana and entered Greek airspace.

Greek fighter jets were scrambled to shadow the Boeing 737-400 after the plane's captain triggered a distress signal.

Italian fighter planesthen escorted the airliner to a military airport in Brindisi, where brief negotiations with police led to the release of all 107 passengers and six crew.

An Italian security official confirmed that the hijacker had acted alone and had fooled the pilots into believing he had an accomplice on board. " There was only one hijacker. He surrendered to authorities at the airport," the official told the Associated Press.

Last night Italian police were questioning the passengers one by one to confirm their identities and rule out any possibility of a second hijacker.

The governor of Istanbul, Muammer Guler, identified the man responsible as Hakan Ekinci, an army deserter who had been denied political asylum in Albania, and faced arrest on his return to Turkey.

Turkish media said Ekinci was a convert to Christianity who had written to the Pope in late August, asking for his help to avoid compulsory military service. In extracts from the letter, released by Turkey's Dogan news agency, Ekinci wrote: "Dear Pope, I am Hakan Ekinci. I am a Christian and I never want to serve a Muslim army. I wish you to help me as the spiritual leader of the Christian world."

The Vatican said the Pope had been kept informed about the hijack but preparations for a papal visit to Turkey next month would be unaffected. The Pope's visit is seen as a a goodwill gesture could help defuse Muslim anger over comments the pontiff made last month.

The Pope upset many Muslims around the world ­ including Turkey's Islamic-rooted government ­ with a speech last month in which he quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor as saying: "Show me just what Mohamed 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."

Pope Benedict has since said that he regrets offending Muslims and that the quotation did not reflect his personal views. But he stopped short of offering a full apology as some, including Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had sought.

Despite the furore, the Pope is still on schedule to visit Ankara, Istanbul and the ancient site of Ephesus as a guest of the staunchly secular Turkish President, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, at the end of next month.

His visit will include a meeting in Istanbul with the Ecumenical Patrirach, Bartholomew I, leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, and a service that he will lead at an Istanbul church.