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Hijacker surrenders after plane diverted to Greece

©Associated Press

March 29, 2003

ATHENS, Greece -- A hijacker saying he was armed with explosives commandeered a domestic Turkish flight late Friday and forced it to land in Greece. He surrendered hours later and more than 200 people aboard were freed unharmed, officials said.

Police early today arrested 20-year-old Ozgur Gencarslan, a Turkish citizen who was reportedly distraught and overwhelmed by family problems.

"All passengers are safe outside the airplane," Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou said at Athens airport.

Passengers reported the hijacker had been strapped with explosives and brandished a razor, said Greek Deputy Transport Minister Manolis Stratakis.

There were no injuries among the 205 people aboard the plane -- 196 passengers and nine crew members.

The Turkish Airlines Airbus A310 was on a domestic flight from Istanbul to Ankara when it was hijacked 25 minutes after takeoff. It changed course and began heading toward the Aegean coastal city of Izmir, later traveling to Greece, Turkey's private NTV television reported.

The Greek air force scrambled F-16 fighter jets to prevent the plane from landing, but officials quickly called them off.

"Two hundred people are two hundred people. We would have prevented it coming to Athens, but they said they had no fuel and we couldn't risk it," Greek government spokesman Christos Protopapas said.

After the plane landed, Greek antiterrorist police surrounded it at an isolated area of the airport and a top police official negotiated with the hijacker.

Turkey's Transportation Ministry said the hijacker claimed to have plastic explosives and had been seen carrying five candlesticks as he boarded in Istanbul. It said he might have claimed that they were explosives.

During the standoff, Turkish television broadcast interviews with passengers who spoke via mobile phones.

"The hostess told us that a male hijacker was in the cockpit, and said he had strapped bombs onto his body," said a passenger, who identified himself as Sami.

Another passenger, Kaan Sahinalp, said there was little panic on board. "We are waiting. We believe the plane will take off to Germany."

Turkish officials said several members of the Turkish Parliament were among the passengers. "Whatever is in our fate will happen. What can we do?," one of them, Vahit Erdem, who belongs to the governing Justice and Development Party, said by cell phone before being released.

A U.S. Embassy official said he did not know if any Americans were on the flight, one of many every day between Istanbul, which is Turkey's most populous city, and Ankara, the capital.

The first clear break to the standoff came as passengers began filing out of the plane early today, about five hours after the hijacking began.

"We've boarded buses, we're heading toward terminal building," passenger Kubilay Timucin told Turkish television.

Turkish police said Gencarslan hijacked the plane to reunite with his father who lives in Germany, private NTV television reported. He was upset because his stepfather had barred him from seeing his mother and sister in Turkey. After landing in Athens, he demanded the plane continue on to Berlin.

"He has some family problems. We used a fatherly and understanding approach to convince him" to surrender, Turkish Transportation Minister Binali Yildirim said.

The Greek police have for months been training a special antiterrorist squad to deal with hijackings and other terrorism at the airport as part of its preparations for the Olympics.

The last hijacking at Istanbul's airport was in February, when a lone hijacker claiming to have a bomb briefly held two flight attendants hostage before police stormed the aircraft.

In 1998, a man carrying a teddy bear he claimed was stuffed with explosives commandeered a Turkish Airlines flight. The incident ended when he was overpowered by other passengers.

Seven months later a man brandishing what turned out to be a toy gun hijacked a Turkish jetliner. He was persuaded to surrender.

A third hijacking that year ended in bloodshed when security officials stormed a plane on the tarmac at Ankara airport and shot dead a Kurdish rebel armed with a hand grenade. No passengers were hurt.

-- Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

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