Turkish hijacker is seeking asylum

Brindisi, Italy - A Turkish army deserter who hijacked a Turkish airliner to Italy is seeking asylum because he fears persecution in his Muslim homeland after his conversion to Christianity and wanted Pope Benedict XVI's protection, an Italian prosecutor said Wednesday.

"It looks like it was an operation which he had planned for some time, the reasons are of religious nature," Brindisi Prosecutor Giuseppe Giannuzzi told a news conference in this port city where the hijacking ended safely Tuesday night with the hijacker's surrender.

"Having taken up the Christian religion, he feared going back to Turkey," said Giannuzzi, who interrogated the suspect after he surrendered.

Turkish officials have said that Hakan Ekinci was being sent back by Albania, where he had been denied asylum, to Turkey aboard the Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-400, with police waiting to arrest him in Istanbul where the 28-year-old deserter and convicted swindler would have landed Tuesday night.

Instead, Italy's interior minister Giuliano Amato told lawmakers, Ekinci slipped into the cockpit when an attendant opened the door and gave the pilot a note insisting that he had a message to deliver to the pope and that accomplices aboard another plane would "blow that plane up" if his message didn't reach the pontiff.

Although no weapons were found, and there was no other plane involved, according to authorities, "the climate that we live in is such that even a sneeze alarms us," Giannuzzi said.

Ekinci was interrogated during the night by Italian authorities in a Brindisi jail, his lawyer Vita Cavaliere and the prosecutor said.

His first words to interrogators were "'I want to stay in Italy because I'm afraid of going back,'" the prosecutor said. Ekinci had demanded to go to Rome because "his aim was to let the pope know about his religion."

"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.

Asked about first reports that the hijacking was a protest at the pope's recent remarks about Islam and violence, the prosecutor replied, "This is science fiction," because the Turk "never raised that aspect."

Prosecutors said they will aim to have him tried in Italy.

Benedict kept to his schedule Wednesday, circling through St. Peter's Square in his open-topped popemobile and greeting some 30,000 pilgrims and tourists who were attending his weekly audience under a light drizzle.

Vatican officials in Vatican City and in Turkey said during the hijacking that the pope's planned pilgrimage for Turkey late next month was going ahead and Turkish authorities offered assurances that all needed security measures would be taken to protect the pontiff.

Benedict's speech in Germany on Sept. 12 sparked anger and protest in the Muslim world. He has expressed regret that Muslims were offended and said that his speech, about faith and reason, was misinterpreted.

Amato said that while the hijacker wanted to deliver a message for the pope, he was not carrying any written letter for the pontiff.

"The reason he insisted on landing in Rome or in Brindisi, was to get a missive to the pope," Amato said.

Amato said the incident showed "the fragility" of the Turkish airline's security.

"We all have in mind the pope's visit to Turkey in the coming weeks," Amato said, a pilgrimage which will "present delicate security problems." But he added that he didn't think the incident had increased the security threat level for the pope's planned visit in late November.

"We're taking all necessary security measures for the pope's visit," Turkey's ambassador to Italy, Ugur Ziyal, told Turkey's state-owned news agency Anatolia. He insisted there were no "particular risks" and stressed that the pope was welcome.

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.

As the hijacking ended, Ekinci "walked through the middle of the business class and said, 'I apologize to all of you ... Good night,'" a Turkish passenger, Ergun Erkoseoglu, said upon returning to Istanbul.

Anatolia reported that Ekinci had claimed on an Internet posting that he had sent a letter to Benedict in August, asking the pope to help him avoid military service in Turkey. "I am a Christian and I never want to serve in a Muslim army," Anatolia quoted Ekinci as writing.