Turkish officials say plane hijacker was seeking help from the Pope

.- New light has been shed on the hijacking of a Turkish Airlines plane which was overtaken Tuesday.  Reports have now surfaced that a single, unarmed Turkish man hijacked the plane, saying that he had a message to deliver to Pope Benedict.  Initial reports indicated that two men had hijacked the plane in protest to the Pontiff’s upcoming trip to the country, the message now appears to be one seeking the Pope’s help.

Agence France Press reports that the single hijacker, identified as Hakan Ekinci, took charge of the airliner and made the aircraft’s crew believe he had an accomplice at the rear of the plane.

The plane was diverted to Brindisi, Italy where Ekinci gave himself up to police and released his unharmed hostages after apologizing to them.  According to AFP Ergun Ozkoseoglu called Turkish television prior to Ekinci’s surrender.  “He is now apologizing to everyone and is waving to us,” Ozkoseoglu told the NTV channel as other passengers could be heard breaking into applause in the background.

"There was no panic" throughout the standoff, Ozkoseoglu said.

Ekinci -- reportedly a Turkish convert to Christianity and a conscientious objector -- deserted the Turkish army in May, while on a one-day furlough from his Istanbul garrison and fled to Albania, where he made an unsuccessful bid for political asylum, Istanbul Governor, Muammer Guler said.

Ekinci was about to be deported to Turkey where he faced arrest, the Turkish embassy in Tirana earlier informed authorities in Ankara.

"We were going to arrest him at the airport and hand him over to the military authorities," Guler said.

He confirmed that Ekinci had written in late August to the Pope, seeking his help to avoid military service in Turkey. "We are looking into the issue," Guler said.

Transport Minister Binali Yildirim confirmed that Ekinici was seeking help from the Pope.  "These persons are seeking political asylum and have said so to the (Italian) police," Yildirim told NTV television before learning Ekinci had acted alone.

NTV also claimed to have a copy of the letter Ekinci wrote to the Holy Father reporting that it read, "Dear pope, I am a Christian and I do not want to serve in a Muslim army.”

He also wrote that he was living in a UN-run refugee camp "in a country that has friendly relations with Turkey" -- apparently Albania -- and feared being extradited to Turkey.

Guler said the hijacker entered the cockpit about 20 minutes after the plane took off from Tirana and threatened the pilots with a parcel which he said contained a bomb, the Anatolia news agency reported.

He asked the pilots to divert the plane to Rome, but was told there was not enough fuel and the aircraft eventually landed at Brindisi.

Earlier reports had stated that two men had hijacked the plane with a different message for the Pope.  The message was reportedly in the form of a protest to the Holy Father’s upcoming trip to Turkey.

When asked of a possible connection to the Pope’s upcoming trip, Turkish Airlines chief executive Candan Karlitekin had told NTV: "The cockpit was told that it was a protest of this nature."

The Vatican has remained steadfast in its determination that the Pope’s trip continue as scheduled, even after violent protests following the misunderstanding of the words he spoke in Germany last month.

Prior to the Pope’s comments on Islam at the University of Regensburg, many questioned his safety in Turkey.  In May a novel was published entitled, “Assassination of a Pope.”  The book is written about a Turkish gunman who assassinates the Holy Father on his trip.

Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish gunman who tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II, released a statement from prison two weeks ago, also warning Benedict not to visit.

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