A Turkish army deserter who hijacked a Turkish airliner to Italy is seeking asylum because he fears persecution in his Muslim homeland after his conversion to Christianity and wanted Pope Benedict XVI's protection, an Italian prosecutor said yesterday.
"It looks like it was an operation which he had planned for some time, the reasons are of religious nature," Brindisi Prosecutor Giuseppe Giannuzzi told a news conference in the port city where the hijacking ended safely on Tuesday night with the hijacker's surrender.
"Having taken up the Christian religion, he feared going back to Turkey," said Giannuzzi, who interrogated the suspect after he surrendered.
Turkish officials have said that Hakan Ekinci was being sent back by Albania, where he had been denied asylum, to Turkey aboard the Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-400, with police waiting to arrest him in Istanbul where the 28-year-old deserter and convicted swindler would have landed on Tuesday night.
Instead, Italy's Interior Minister Giuliano Amato told lawmakers, Ekinci slipped into the cockpit when an attendant opened the door and gave the pilot a note insisting that he had a message to deliver to the pope and that accomplices aboard another plane would "blow that plane up" if his message didn't reach the pontiff.
The unarmed Ekinci entered the cockpit about 20 minutes after take-off from Tirana en route to Istanbul and threatened the pilots with a parcel he said contained a bomb, according to Turkish officials.
As the hijacking ended, Ekinci "walked through the middle of the business class and said, `I apologize to all of you ... Good night,'" a Turkish passenger, Ergun Erkoseoglu, said upon returning to Istanbul.
Ekinci was interrogated during the night by Italian authorities in a Brindisi jail, his lawyer Vita Cavaliere and the prosecutor said.
His first words to interrogators were "I want to stay in Italy because I'm afraid of going back," the prosecutor said.
Ekinci had demanded to go to Rome because "his aim was to let the pope know about his religion."
"He was obsessed with speaking to the pope, to say that he wanted to be protected, that he had embraced this [Christian] religion," Giannuzzi said.
Amato said that while the hijacker wanted to deliver a message for the pope, he was not carrying any written letter for the pontiff.
Ekinci had briefly served time in prison in 2003 for swindling and attempting to leave the country with another person's passport, the Turkish police said.
The passengers of the hijacked plane flew back to Istanbul yesterday with tales of a relatively calm and chatty experience.
Senior Turkish Airlines officials greeted the plane bringing the passengers back from Brindisi. All of the 113 people on board the hijacked Boeing 737-400, except for the hijacker and a traveller who chose to stay in Italy, were flown to Istanbul.
Some passengers did not realize that they were hijacked until they turned on their cellphones, said one Turkish traveller, Halil Demir.