Turkish hijackers surrender after demanding to send message to Pope

Passengers including several Asian beauty queens have been freed after two Turkish hijackers earlier seized a plane flying from Albania to Istanbul and diverted it to Italy demanding to send a message to Pope Benedict.

The motive for the men's action is unclear, with conflicting reports of either a protest against the Pope or an attempt to seek asylum in Italy, the BBC reports.

All the Turkish Airlines plane's 107 passengers - including Misses India, Singapore, Malaysia and Philippines - are said to be unhurt.

Early reports indicated that the hijackers who are both said to be Turkish were protesting against the Pope's planned visit to Turkey in November.

In a statement, Turkish Airlines said that "two people forced our TK1476 flight from Tirana to Istanbul to divert to Italy. ... It landed without problem at Brindisi airport in Italy. Our passengers do not have any problems."

However, confirming the surrender of the hijackers, Brindisi Police Chief Salvatore De Paolis told Reuters that the two men wanted political asylum.

The Italian air force in turn sent up two F-16s to intercept the plane, and reportedly forced it to land.

Candan Karlitekin, chairman of Turkish Airlines' board of directors, said no one had been hurt and the hijackers had apparently not threatened passengers.

Asked if the hijacking was a protest against the papal visit, Mr Karliteken told Turkish TV channel NTV: "The cockpit was told that it was a protest of this nature."

But Turkish television later said one of the hijackers had converted to Christianity and was a conscientious objector, Reuters reports.

It said he had sent a letter to the Pope in late August, asking for his help to avoid compulsory military service in Turkey.

It quoted the letter as reading: "I am a Christian and I do not want to serve in a Muslim army."

Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi had earlier said that the Holy See was following developments closely and that preparations for the 28 November-1 December trip to Turkey were going ahead.

Although the Pope has several times expressed his regret for the offence caused by his Regensburg speech, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has been one of those who have said they are not entirely satisfied with the apology.

Private broadcaster CNN Turk reported that Italian officials had refused the hijackers' request to contact the Pope.

Turkish jet hijackers surrender (BBC News, 3/10/06)
Turkish hijackers give up in Italy (Reuters, 3/10/06)
Turkish plane sends hijack signal (The Age, 4/10/06)
Passengers "leave hijacked plane"

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Turkish Airlines
Text of Pope Benedict's Regensburg lecture

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4 Oct 2006