BRINDISI, Italy – Italian officials said Wednesday they intend to prosecute a Turkish man for hijacking an airliner, 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.
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 Tuesday during a flight from Tirana, Albania, to Istanbul, Turkey. 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 told The Associated Press.
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 that Hakan 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 this Adriatic port city.
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 that Ekinci was afraid of being persecuted.
"This issue is a comedy of misrepresentation," Ziyal said. "Whatever (Ekinci) is saying has nothing to do with reality."
Ziyal said Ekinci flew to Albania on a Turkish passport, then about three days ago went to the Turkish Embassy in Tirana and said the hotel where he had been staying, had confiscated his passport because he had not paid his bill, and asked embassy officials for papers so he could travel back to Turkey. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees then bought his ticket to Turkey, Ziyal said.
"I don't think they would have done that if they thought he was being persecuted" in Turkey," the ambassador said.
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.
In Rome, Interior Minister Giuliano Amato briefed parliament hours after the hijacking.
"We all have in mind the pope's visit to Turkey in the coming weeks," Amato said. He added the pilgrimage would present "delicate security problems" but said he didn't think the hijacking would make them worse.
Benedict's visit to Turkey in late November is his first as pontiff to a predominantly Muslim country. The already sensitive visit became even more delicate after remarks by Benedict about Islam and violence angered the Muslim world.
Benedict expressed regret that his Sept. 12 speech in Germany had sparked protests, said he did not intend to endorse a negative view of Islam and called for dialogue among religions.
"We're taking all necessary security measures for the pope's visit," Ziyal, told Turkey's state-owned news agency Anatolia. "I don't think there are particular risks but we all know what terrorist can do."