MOSCOW – Fears of a terrorist attack on the Winter Olympics in southern Russia took on frightening reality Friday when a Ukrainian man claimed to have a bomb aboard a Turkish airliner and reportedly ordered the plane to divert to the games venue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Turkish news agencies reported that the Pegasus Airlines flight from Kharkov, Ukraine, to Istanbul sent out a distress signal just before the opening ceremonies were to begin for the Feb. 7-23 games.
A Chechen separatist warlord had vowed last summer to attack the Olympic venues to press the autonomy demands of Islamic minorities inhabiting the restive Northern Caucasus region, just east of Sochi. Doku Umarov issued the threat in July, denouncing the Russian plans to stage the international competition “on the bones of our ancestors.”
But even after the alleged hijacker had been subdued, and the 110 passengers aboard the Boeing 737 allowed to deplane at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen International Airport, it remained unclear whether the incident was in any way connected with Russia’s centuries-long conflict with the Caucasus minorities.
Kharkov, where the reported hijacker originated, is in eastern Ukraine, where supporters of the Kiev government have been angered by three months of opposition protests in demand of closer economic ties between the country and the European Union.
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified official of the Ukrainian Security Service as describing the alleged hijacker as being in a state of “severe alcohol intoxication.”
The Turkish air force scrambled two F-16 fighter planes to intercept the threatened aircraft and escort it to Istanbul, where it landed safely just as opening ceremonies were getting underway in Sochi, NTV reported from Istanbul.
The broadcaster quoted Turkish Transport Ministry official Habib Soluk as saying that the hijacking suspect had stood up in the plane, declared that a bomb was hidden in checked luggage and demanded that the plane divert to Sochi.
The pilot signaled that a hijacking attempt was occurring and the purported abductor was duped into thinking the plane was headed for the Black Sea resort, Soluk said, according to state-run TRT television.
Turkey’s Cihan News Agency released video stills of the suspected hijacker being escorted off the plane, a fair-skinned man with short blond hair who appeared to be in his 30s or 40s and was wearing a red, white and blue hockey shirt bearing the number 11.
Authorities searched the aircraft and the suspect, the news agencies said, but none reported that any weapons or explosive were found.
Tensions and security are both high in Sochi, where more than 40,000 police, troops and special agents have been deployed to protect the 3,000 athletes and tens of thousands of other visitors for the Olympic events.