ROME, Oct 4: A man who hijacked a Turkish Airlines flight yesterday was unarmed and threatened to blow up the plane if the pilot did not divert the flight to Italy, officials and crew said today.
All 107 passengers and six crew on the Boeing 737 were unharmed in the hijack which ended with the man's arrest in Brindisi airport in southern Italy late yesterday.
Italian authorities identified the man as 27-year-old Turk Hakan Ekinci and said he acted alone.
The Turkish Justice Ministry had initially said a second hijacker was also involved but later concluded this was not the case, according to state-run Anatolian news agency.
The pilot said Ekinci stormed the cockpit shortly after the flight took off from Tirana bound for Istanbul and claimed he had accomplices onboard. He has requested political asylum in Italy.
''While the chief stewardess entered the cockpit to ask if we needed anything, the terrorist entered by force. I tried to push him out but he was a big man and I failed to stop him,'' Turkish Airlines captain Mursel Gokalp told reporters in Istanbul.
''He said his only aim was to give a message to the Pope and then he would submit himself to the police. He said that if he failed to deliver his message his three friends at the back of the plane would detonate the plastic bombs they had,'' he said.
Turkish media said Ekinci was a Christian convert who wanted to avoid military service in Turkey and wrote to Pope Benedict several months ago for help to avoid serving in a ''Muslim army''.
The incident raised questions about how an unarmed person could hijack an aircraft after all the security alerts following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
''The peculiar thing about this hijack was that it was done by a lone, unarmed man,'' Italy's Interior Minister Giuliano Amato told a Senate hearing on the incident.
A Tirana airport video released to Reuters showed Ekinci undergoing repeated security checks and a body search after a metal detector went off twice. He had to remove his belt and sweater and empty his pockets before being allowed to board.
Security has been upgraded in recent years at Tirana's international airport, which is run by a German-U.S. firm.
Amato said Ekinci travelled to Albania in May and requested asylum there on the grounds that he was viewed as a deserter from the Turkish army and would be punished if he went home.
Albania refused his request and he was expelled from the country on the Turkish Airlines flight from Tirana to Istanbul.
The Vatican said the hijacking was not expected to affect plans for a visit to Turkey next month by Pope Benedict, who offended many Muslims with a speech last month linking the spread of the Islamic faith to violence.
KNEW THE CODE
According to passengers, 20 minutes into the flight the pilot announced that a technical failure at Istanbul airport meant the plane would have to land in Italy. ''But when we saw Italian soldiers at the airport we understood the situation. The plane was hijacked. There was no panic among the passengers,'' passenger Ergun Erkoseoglu told a news conference at Istanbul airport.
When the pilot transmitted a code which alerts air traffic controllers to emergency situations, Ekinci told him to insert the more specific code which refers to a hijack.
''The pilot said he knew procedures and the meaning of codes and said he learned it all on the Internet,'' Amato told the Senate. ''I don't know how many of you would have known how to do that, I certainly wouldn't have.'' As he surrendered, the hijacker said sorry to the captain, shook his hand and told passengers: ''I apologise to all of you.
Good night.'' At the Vatican, Cardinal Pio Laghi said the kidnap ''worried us not just because of the risk of blood being spilt, but also because other people might copy this violent act.'' ''But I don't think this episode will have any influence on the Holy Father's trip,'' he told reporters.
Amato said that while the hijack exposed the ''fragility'' of security on the flight in question, it did not heighten security concerns for the Pope's trip.