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Official: Man Who Hijacked Turkish Airliner Seeking Political Asylum

A Turkish man seeking political asylum hijacked a jetliner carrying 113 people on Tuesday, forcing the pilots to fly to Italy, where he later surrendered and released the passengers unharmed.

Security officials in the southern Italian city of Brindisi, where the plane landed, said the unarmed hijacker, identified by Turkish authorities as Hakan Ekinci, was seeking to have a message delivered to Pope Benedict XVI, but said he did not know what that message was.

Giuseppe Giannuzzi, chief prosecutor in the nearby city if Lecce, told reporters that Ekinci had identified himself as a Christian, but the prosecutor said he did not have more details since the Turk had not yet been questioned.

Turkish officials said Ekinci was an army deserter seeking political asylum, and added that earlier statements by some officials that he had hijacked the plane to protest the pope's upcoming visit to Turkey 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.

The Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-400, flying from Albania to Istanbul, was hijacked in Greek airspace. It landed at Italy's Brindisi airport under escort by two Italian military planes.

"The man burst into the cockpit and said, 'There's two of us,"' leading authorities initially to believe the man was not acting alone, said an Italian security official based in Brindisi. The official, speaking by telephone, gave details about the hijacking on condition his name not be used 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 could not have his name used, said no weapons were found on Ekinci and police searching the plane also found no weapons.

The passengers were being questioned one by one to confirm their identities and rule out any possibility that the suspect had an accomplice.

Istanbul's governor, Muammer Guler, said Ekinci was an army deserter who had fled to Albania and was seeking political asylum. He said the Turkish Consulate in the Albanian capital had alerted Turkish authorities earlier on Tuesday that Ekinci had been denied political asylum there and was on the flight back to Turkey.

Had Ekinci arrived in Istanbul as scheduled he would have been detained for being a deserter, Guler said.

Ekinci, 28, had written to Pope Benedict in August to seek the pontiff's help to avoid military service in his home country, Turkey's state-owned Anatolia news agency reported.

Other Turkish news reports said Ekinci had also converted from Islam to Christianity.

Salvatore Sciacchitano, deputy director of Italy's ENAC civil aviation agency, said the plane had been carrying 107 passengers and six crew.

A spokesman for the Greek military's general staff told The Associated Press that four Greek fighter jets had been scrambled to shadow the plane after it issued a distress signal over Greek airspace.

The plane's captain issued an alert and was contacted by Greek air traffic controllers at 5:55 p.m. (1455GMT) 15 miles (25 kilometers) north of Thessaloniki, Stravropoulos said.

The captain, believing there were two hijackers aboard, told the Greek controllers: "I have two undesirable people who want to go to Italy to see the pope and give him a message," Stravropoulos said.

The plane then contacted Italian air traffic controllers and asked to land in Brindisi, according to Nicoletta Tomiselli, an ENAC spokeswoman. She said the aircraft was escorted to the ground by two Italian military planes.

Benedict angered the Muslim world in a speech in Germany on Sept. 12, when he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor as saying: "Show me just what (the Prophet) Muhammad 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."

Benedict has expressed regret for offending Muslims by his remarks and said they did not reflect his personal views, but he has not offered a complete apology as some had sought.

The Vatican said Tuesday it has been going ahead with plans for the trip and a Vatican official, asked about the hijacking, said he expected no changes in the pope's plans for the visit. The official, who asked that his name not be used because of the sensitivity of the issue, said an official Vatican announcement that the trip would take place Nov. 28-Dec. 1 would be made soon.