ANKARA, TURKEY – Turkish security forces on Friday detained a Ukrainian plane passenger suspected of making a bomb threat in an attempt to hijack a flight to Sochi, Russia, where the Winter Olympics were opening under tight security.
An F-16 fighter was scrambled as soon as the pilot on the flight from Kharkiv, Ukraine, signaled there was a hijacking attempt and then escorted the plane safely to its original destination in Istanbul, according to NTV television.
Authorities snuck onto the plane and subdued the suspected hijacker while the other 109 passengers were being evacuated, Huseyin Avni Mutlu, the Istanbul governor, told reporters at Sabiha Gokcen airport. The man was slightly injured during the struggle, but no weapons were used, he said. The man did not have a bomb on him, he said.
The passengers were evacuated without problems and the “operation has ended,” Mutlu said on Twitter.
The man’s motive was unclear, but Mutlu said he had “requests concerning his own country” and wanted to relay a “message concerning sporting activities in Sochi.”
“We were receiving through various channels information that there could be initiatives to sabotage the spirit of peace arising in Sochi, but we are saddened that such an event took place in our city,” Mutlu said.
The hijacking drama came as the Winter Olympics opened in the Russian resort city, with thousands of athletes from around the world pouring into the tightly secured stadium and fireworks shooting into the sky.
The Interfax news agency cited the Ukrainian Security Service, the country’s main security agency, as saying the passenger who was in a state of severe alcohol intoxication. Mutlu said the man was not drunk, but suggested he may have taken other substances. He did not elaborate.
Habib Soluk, the Turkish Transport Ministry undersecretary, told NTV that the man rose from his seat, shouted that there was bomb on board and tried to enter the locked cockpit. The pilot signaled that there was a hijack attempt and the airport was placed on high alert.
“The man was made to believe the plane was heading to Sochi,” Soluk said.
Pegasus Airlines confirmed in a brief statement there was a “bomb threat” aboard their flight from Kharkiv.
The plane’s captain, Ilyas Karagulle, signaled that the crew was well, according to state-run TRT television.
The plane landed at about 6 p.m. Turkish time, just as the opening ceremony for the Olympics was about to begin.
With about 100,000 police, security agents and army troops flooding Sochi, Russia has pledged to ensure “the safest Olympics in history.” But terror fears fueled by recent suicide bombings have left athletes, spectators and officials worldwide jittery about potential threats.
Security experts warn that Islamic militants in the Caucasus, who have threatened to derail the Winter Games that run from Feb. 7-23, could achieve their goal by choosing soft targets away from the Olympic sites or even outside Sochi.
Olympic organizers introduced blanket screening of all visitors, requiring them to share passport details to get a Winter Games spectator pass. Officials also cut access to vehicles lacking Sochi registration or a special pass, and guards were searching all train commuters.