A passenger announced Friday “that there was a bomb on board” his plane and wanted it diverted to Sochi — the Russian city hosting the Winter Olympics amid terrorism fears — Turkish officials said.
Rather than abide by the request, the Pegasus Airlines’ crew sent a hijacking alert that Turkey’s Air Force Control Center received at 5:20 p.m. (10:20 a.m. ET), Turkey’s semiofficial Anadolu news agency reported. About 20 minutes later, two F-16 fighter jets scrambled to intercept the Boeing 737-800.
“These planes accompanied the Pegasus plane over the Black Sea,” that report added.
Eventually, the airliner landed safely at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport, where video showed police and security officials milling around the jet as buses eventually removed passengers.
Istanbul’s governor tweeted around 10 p.m. that “the air pirate has been neutralized” and all other passengers “disembarked from the plane without any problems.”
“The operation is complete,” Gov. Huseyin Avni Mutlu said.
The incident came at a tense time given the various threats surrounding the Winter Games, which kicked off in earnest Friday night with its opening ceremony.
Russian security forces have cracked down in recent weeks on suspected militants in the restive North Caucasus republic of Dagestan — which is located on the other side of the Caucasus Mountains from Sochi — and elsewhere in recent weeks after twin suicide bombings in the city of Volgograd in December.
There have also been concerns specifically about explosives-laden airlines. U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul said Wednesday night that the his nation’s Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin to airlines flying into Russia warning that explosive materials could be concealed in toothpaste or cosmetic tubes.
Official: Suspect is Ukrainian
The flight started in Kharkov in Ukraine, and was headed to Istanbul, according to the Transportation Ministry.
While it was in air, “one of the passengers said that there was a bomb on board and asked the plane to not land in Sabiha Gokcen but rather to land in Sochi,” Transportation Ministry official Habip Soluk said on CNNTurk.
The man said the bomb was in the baggage hold, a Transportation Ministry official said.
The aircraft ended up touching down at the Turkish airport at at 6:04 p.m., according to Anadolu, at which point it was moved to a safe zone on the tarmac.
Cihan News Agency of Turkey said the alleged hijacker was apparently being detained, as it published a photograph from inside the plane of a man standing in a number 11 sports jersey with empty seats around him and two people in uniform.
Turkish officials couldn’t be immediately reached to confirm the photograph.
Officials had no immediate details on why the alleged hijacker wanted to divert the plane to Sochi.
The alleged hijacker is of Ukrainian nationality, Soluk said.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Turkey was working with Turkish authorities to confirm the citizenship of the suspect, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said.
U.S. officials were also in contact with Turkish authoritiesy. “We’re monitoring the situation and have been in touch with the Turkish government,” said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
By Gul Tuysuz and Michael Martinez; Gul Tuysuz reported from Turkey, and Michael Martinez reported and wrote from Los Angeles. CNN’s Victoria Butenko contributed from Kiev, Ukraine, and Greg Botelho contributed from Atlanta.
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