BRINDISI, Italy (AP) – A Turkish man seeking political asylum hijacked a jetliner carrying 113 people yesterday and forced it to land in southern Italy, where he surrendered and released all the passengers unharmed, officials said.

Steven Neff
Turkish policemen patrol the arrival hall of the Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, Turkey, yesterday. (AP PHOTO)

Security officials in the southern Italian city of Brindisi, where the plane landed, said the unarmed hijacker was seeking to have a message delivered to the pope, but said they did not know what that message was.

Turkish officials said the suspect, identified as Hakan Ekinci, 28, was an army deserter seeking political asylum. They stressed that earlier statements by some officials that he had hijacked the plane to protest Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Turkey next month were incorrect.

“From the onset of the events, there was no verified information that the hijacking was related to the pope visit,” Turkish Transport Minister Binali Yildirim told The Associated Press. “It was a simple attempt of seeking political asylum under the influence of psychological problems.”

Candan Karlitekin, chairman of Turkish Airlines’ board of directors, initially said the Boeing 737-400 had been hijacked by two Turks. But several officials later said that Ekinci acted alone.

The Turkish captain of the jet issued an alert that the plane was hijacked shortly after it took off from the Albanian capital of Tirana en route to Istanbul.

“The man burst into the cockpit and said ‘there’s two of us,'” leading authorities to believe the man was not acting alone, according to an Italian security official based in Brindisi. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

“There was only one hijacker. He surrendered to authorities at the airport,” the official said.

Another official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said no weapons were found on Ekinci and police searching the plane also found no weapons.

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