(photo credit: Channel 10)
Two men wielding a fake bomb and claiming al-Qaida ties hijacked a Turkish plane Saturday, holding passengers and crew hostage before surrendering peacefully in Antalya more than four hours later, authorities said.
It was the fifth hijacking or hijacking attempt of a Turkish plane in four years by people falsely claiming to be carrying explosives or arms - despite increased security at airports following the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
The hijackers' motive remained unclear Saturday evening. One of the men was Turkish and the other was believed to be a Palestinian carrying a Syrian passport, Transport Minister Osman Gunes said. Earlier, Turkish Cypriot authorities said the men were Iranians protesting US policies.
The alleged bomb turned out to be made of play dough, CNN-Turk television reported, citing police sources.
The men were among 136 passengers on board an Atlasjet flight that departed from Ercan in Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus on Saturday morning, officials said. Six crew members were on the flight.
The suspects told police during initial questioning that they tried to storm the cockpit shortly after takeoff, said Alaaddin Yuksel, governor of Antalya. Passengers said they failed to break the door down.
"They claimed to have bombs," passenger Erhan Erkul told NTV television.
The hijackers then ordered the pilots to divert the flight to Iran, telling passengers they were linked to the al-Qaida terror network and armed with explosives, officials said. The pilots persuaded the hijackers to let them land at the Mediterranean resort of Antalya in southwest Turkey instead to refuel, officials said.
After landing, the pilots left the plane through the cockpit window to prevent the hijackers from forcing them to fly the plane and shut off the power, said Aydin Kiziltan, chief executive of Worldfocus, the company that leased the plane to Atlasjet.
A 20-member anti-terror team was dispatched to Antalya, 545 kilometers (340 miles) south of Ankara, as a precaution.
One passenger told NTV that the hijackers allowed the crew to serve them water and promised not to harm them. "We are Muslims," passengers quoted one of the hijackers as saying.
But without air conditioning, some passengers fainted. The hijackers agreed to open one of the exit doors to let in air, and then allowed the women and children get off the plane. A group of men escaped by breaking down the rear emergency exit, passengers said.
Some sustained injuries during the frantic escape, including one with a broken pelvis, authorities said.
The hijackers surrendered without incident several hours later, Gunes said.
"The adventure that started early in the morning finally came to an end," said Tuncay Doganer, chief executive of Atlasjet. "With the two hijackers surrendering, the incident ended with no bloodshed."
Gunes said the hijackers, identified as Mehmet Resat Ozlu, of Turkey, and Mommen Abdul Aziz Talikh, told an official they "apologized to the Turkish nation" for seizing the plane.
The passengers, who had been kept at Antalya airport, later were flown to Istanbul on another Atlasjet plane, the private news agency Dogan reported.
Cyprus blamed the hijacking on poor security at Ercan airport in the Turkish-controlled part of the island. The Foreign Ministry said the airport did "not fulfill international security and civil aviation rules."
However, Salih Usar, who serves as transport minister for the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state, said security measures at Ercan were in line with international standards.
"If the hijackers had attempted to slip any explosives into the airport, the security forces would have detected that," he said.