ISTANBUL Up to five suspected Kurdish militants claiming to be carrying a bomb hijacked a passenger ferry carrying 24 people in northwestern Turkey on Friday, the transport minister said.
Coastguard vessels tracked the high-speed "sea bus" in the Sea of Marmara and it anchored west of Istanbul, having run low on fuel after setting off from Izmit early on Friday evening.
"They have no concrete demands. All they want now is fuel and food and drink," Binali Yildirim told reporters in the capital Ankara, adding there were no indications that any passengers had been harmed.
"There is information that they are from a wing of the terror organization," Yildirim added, referring to the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
A hijacking would represent a change in tactics for the PKK which frequently carries out attacks on security forces in the mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey. The PKK and other related groups also carry out bomb attacks across the country.
The ship's captain told the Haberturk news channel the assailants were armed and there were explosives on board.
"I am not going to give many details. We set off from Izmit. The ship's crew and passengers were taken hostage together by the HPG," he said referring to the abbreviation used to describe the armed wing of the PKK.
Asked if the assailants were carrying guns, the captain said: "Yes, there is also an amount of explosives on board."
He said the assailants had asked him to speak to the channel but when asked whether the hijackers had any demands, the phone line was cut. During the broadcast at least one male voice could be heard in the background.
The "Kartepe" ferry was carrying 18 passengers, five of them women, and six crew members between Izmit and Golcuk when it was hijacked around 5.45 pm (1545 GMT).
The ferry was a couple of kilometers off the coast near Selimpasa, a small town some 50 km (30 miles) west of Istanbul, Yildirim said. Hazy television pictures showed the vessel illuminated off shore.
Relatives of the passengers and crew were waiting anxiously for news at the ports in Izmit and Golcuk, state-run Anatolian news agency said.
Some reports said the hijackers had overpowered the captain of the ferry and seized passengers' mobile phones.
Security forces were prepared for the possibility that the hijackers may want to take the vessel to Imrali island in the Sea of Marmara, where PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has been jailed since 1999, CNN Turk reported.
"Don't intervene. I have a bomb. I will detonate it," CNN Turk reported a hijacker as telling security forces by phone.
Yildirim said the ferry had zig-zagged its way across the Marmara Sea. Three coastguards and a helicopter were following the 400-passenger capacity ferry.
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 against the state in 1984.
PKK guerrillas have staged a series of attacks on Turkish armed forces this year and killed 24 soldiers in an attack in Hakkari, bordering Iraq, last month.
That attack triggered cross-border operations by the Turkish military against the militants. Several thousand PKK fighters are based in the mountains of northern Iraq, from where they launch attacks on security forces in southeast Turkey.
A series of airplane hijackings have been carried out in the
last two decades but they have been rare in recent years and hijackings at sea are even rarer.
In January 1996, pro-Chechen gunmen hijacked a Black Sea ferry with 200 passengers on board and threatened to blow it up in protest at a Russian attack on Chechen separatists. Those hijackers surrendered three days later.
(Writing by Daren Butler and Jonathon Burch; Editing by Sophie Hares)