ISTANBUL - Turkish security forces killed a lone hijacker, believed to be a Kurdish militant, in a pre-dawn operation on Saturday to rescue more than 20 passengers held hostage for 12 hours on a ferry in northwest Turkey.

The decision was taken to carry out a joint security forces operation at 5:35 a.m. (0335 GMT), Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu told reporters.

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"Shortly after the start of the operation, the vessel was boarded and the assailant was killed," Mutlu said.

"It was clear that the assailant was a terror group member," he said. He was between 28 and 30 years old and was carrying a device with a button and cables which bomb disposal experts were analyzing, Mutlu said.

Earlier reports said up to five suspected Kurdish militants armed with explosives carried out the hijacking on the high-speed 'Kartepe' ferry.

On Friday night, Turkish commandos on coastguard vessels tracked the "sea bus" in the Sea of Marmara before it ran low on fuel and had to anchor west of Istanbul. The ferry had been on a short run between the towns of Izmit and Karamursel.

Friends and relatives had waited for news at the two ports, while fuel tankers had headed for the area where the vessel was anchored, according to media reports.

Transport Minister Binali Yildirim had told reporters in the capital Ankara that the hijacker had not made any concrete demands and had only sought fuel, food and drink.

Shortly before 5:00 a.m. (0300 GMT) a flurry of activity was evident on the ferry's main deck. Hazy television pictures showed figures moving in the aisle between rows of empty seats. A few people were apparently wearing life jackets.

Ambulances and police teams had been waiting on the nearby shore.

"There is information that they are from a wing of the terror organization," Yildirim said, referring to the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which is fighting for Kurdish autonomy in the southeast of the country.

A hijacking would represent a change in tactics for the PKK which frequently carries out attacks on security forces in the mainly Kurdish southeast. Kurdish, leftist and Islamic militants are all active in Turkey.

More than 40,000 people have been killed in the PKK insurgency since the group took up arms in 1984.

There was no immediate comment from the PKK.

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