Fri, Oct 06, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Italy plans to prosecute hijacker


Italian officials intend to prosecute a Turkish man for hijacking an airliner, they have said, despite his appeal for political asylum on the grounds that he is being persecuted as a Christian in Muslim Turkey.

"Even a bicycle thief can ask for political asylum. But at this moment this doesn't mean anything," Brindisi prosecutor Giuseppe Giannuzzi said on Wednesday.

He added that his office was also looking into whether the hijacker, Hakan Ekinci, could be charged with terrorism.

The Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-400 with 113 people aboard was hijacked on Tuesday during a flight from Tirana to Istanbul. It landed in the southern Italian Adriatic port city of Brindisi after Italian air force fighter jets escorted the aircraft there.

Italian officials said Ekinci, who was unarmed, slipped into the cockpit and handed the pilot a note, claiming that he had a message for Pope Benedict XVI and that other hijackers aboard another, unspecified plane would blow it up unless his message was delivered.

"He immediately said he had a message to deliver to the pope and that he was willing to cooperate," Brindisi Prefect Mario Tafaro said.

The pilot, Mursel Gokalp, told reporters in Istanbul that "he convinced me that he had three accomplices on the plane with plastic explosives strapped to their body by frequently opening the cockpit door and pretending as if he was coordinating with his friends."

His top wish was to get his message to the pontiff.

"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.

The case was marked by confusion from the start. Officials in Turkey initially said the plane had been hijacked by a group protesting the pope's upcoming visit to Turkey, but later retracted that version when it became clear that Ekinci had acted alone.

On Wednesday, Turkey's justice minister claimed Ekinci was not the sole hijacker but had an accomplice. However, officials in Italy denied this and Turkey later retracted the claim of a second hijacker.

"It looks like it was an operation which he had planned for some time, the reasons are of religious nature," Giannuzzi told a news conference in Brindisi.

Turkish police identified Ekinci as a 28-year-old army deserter who fled to Albania in May and had asked for political asylum there. He was going back to Turkey on Tuesday, where Turkish authorities said police planned to arrest him.

Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said Turkey would seek Ekinci's extradition.

Turkey's Ambassador to Italy Ugur Ziyal dismissed claims Ekinci was afraid of being persecuted.

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