ANTALYA, Turkey (Reuters) - Two men hijacked an airliner heading for Istanbul from northern Cyprus on Saturday, but gave themselves up and released their hostages after forcing the plane to land in southern Turkey.
Soon after landing most of the 136 passengers were released or broke out through emergency exits, running along the wings and jumping down onto the tarmac.
The pilots also escaped but four passengers and two crew members were held hostage as negotiations took place.
Turkish Interior Minister Osman Gunes said one hijacker was Turkish and the other had a Syrian passport but could be Palestinian. Their motives were being investigated.
“One of them apparently apologized to the Turkish people,” Gunes told reporters after the five-hour drama came to an end.
Fifteen minutes after take-off one of the hijackers tried to force the cockpit door open and told passengers he was a member of al Qaeda, Governor Alaaddin Yuksel said. Police also arrested a passenger suspected of being linked to the hijackers, he said.
Turkish Cypriot passenger Ercan Tekkan told Reuters the hijackers said they had a bomb, but did not want to hurt anyone.
“The plane made some manoeuvres and we thought the plane was going to crash ... Then the plane landed and the pilots escaped from the cockpit while the hijackers kept kicking the cockpit door,” he said.
Some passengers fainted from a lack of oxygen, as the air system was switched off after landing, he said.
Civil Aviation chief Ali Ariduru told reporters there was no clear information on claims the hijackers had a bomb, but it appeared they had a knife.
“They looked anxious and were sweating. They went towards the cockpit. I shouted ‘hijackers’ to warn the other passengers but most of them were asleep,” said Barkin Inan, another Turkish Cypriot passenger who said he was seated next to the hijackers.
“It was a terrifying experience,” he told Reuters by phone.
The plane was hijacked as it brought 136 passengers from northern Cyprus — a destination popular with Turkish and foreign tourists — to Istanbul. CEO of Atlas Jet airline Tuncay Doganer said the plane was forced to land as it did not have enough fuel to get to Tehran as the hijackers demanded.
Hijackings are not uncommon in Turkey, where a number of radical groups ranging from Kurdish separatists to far-left militants operate, and several incidents in the last year or so have ended without casualties.
But the peak holiday season hijacking could be bad news for Turkey’s large foreign currency-earning tourism sector, which is picking up this year after a bad 2006, when regional instability and a separatist bombing campaign hurt the industry.
Cyprus, also a major tourist destination, is divided between the internationally recognized government in the south and an enclave in the north recognized only by Ankara.
Additional reporting by Anil Isik in Ercan