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Ukraine launches terror probe over Turkish plane hijack bid

Passengers of private Turkish company Pegasus leave the plane at the Sabiha Gokcen Airport in Istanbul, Turkey, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

KIEV: Ukraine on Saturday launched a terror probe into a bid by an apparently drunk man to force an airliner flying to Turkey to land in Sochi where leaders gathered for the opening of the Winter Olympic Games.

"We have launched an investigation into an attempt to commit an act of terror and an attempt to hijack a plane," Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) investigative department chief Maxim Lenko told reporters.

Lenko said the Ukrainian -- reported by one official in Kiev as being "in an advanced state of drunkenness" -- was opposed to the politics of President Viktor Yanukovych and his Russian counterpart and ally Vladimir Putin.

The Ukrainian investigator said the man demanded that the plane be flown to Sochi where Yanukovych was holding held crisis talks with Putin on the sidelines of the Games' opening ceremony.

The would-be hijacker "said the hands of Yanukovych and Putin were drenched in blood," said Lenko.

The investigator added that the man had also demanded the release of Ukrainian "hostages" -- a reference to dozens of demonstrators detained by police during the sometimes violent rallies that have been rattling Kiev for more than two months.

Putin's high-stakes meeting with Yanukovych was expected to focus on the Ukrainian leader's determination to ignore the demands of pro-EU protesters and stick to an economic alliance with Kiev's historic master Moscow.

The battle for the political future of Ukraine has pitted the interests of Russia against those of the West while also underscoring the deep political and cultural divide splitting the ex-Soviet nation of 46 million people.

Tied up with rope

The Ukrainian man -- born in 1969 -- brandished what he said was a detonator as he tried gaining access to the cockpit of an aircraft operated by Turkey's Pegasus Airlines which left from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv with 110 people on board.

Turkey scrambled two F-16 jets to force down the airliner at Istanbul's Sabiha Gokcen airport. The man was immediately taken into custody and turned out to have neither a gun nor explosives.

Lenko said the man was eventually tied up with rope by the crew after being tricked into believing that the plane's flight was being reversed toward Sochi.

"But the plane simply made two circles over the Black Sea," the Ukranian investigator said."

The incident occurred in the middle of the lavish Sochi opening ceremony and highlighted the security challenges facing the Games due their proximity to the restless North Caucasus region where Russian forces are battling an Islamic insurgency.

The violent political confrontation in Ukraine erupted when Yanukovych ditched an historic EU agreement under Russian pressure and sought a massive economic bailout from Putin -- a move that infuriated the more pro-European and nationalist west of the ex-Soviet state.

But Lenko said the would-be hijacker -- while backing the Ukrainian opposition -- came from the eastern industrial city of Kharkiv that is view as a bastion of the embattled president's traditional base of pro-Russian support.

Yanukovych's political future depends in large part on the industrial eastern and southern part of his country to avoid being swept up by the anti-Russian sentiment sweeping the rest of the country and much of the capital Kiev.

Lenko said the man bought his ticket on the day of the flight in Kharkiv and raised no initial suspicions from airport personnel.

The suspect is expected to remain in Turkey during the course of the investigation.

He faces 10 years in prison if tried and convicted in Ukraine. But Lenko said that Kiev had not yet filed a formal extradition request.

 

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Summary

Ukraine on Saturday launched a terror probe into a bid by an apparently drunk man to force an airliner flying to Turkey to land in Sochi where leaders gathered for the opening of the Winter Olympic Games.

The Ukrainian investigator said the man demanded that the plane be flown to Sochi where Yanukovych was holding held crisis talks with Putin on the sidelines of the Games' opening ceremony.

Lenko said the man was eventually tied up with rope by the crew after being tricked into believing that the plane's flight was being reversed toward Sochi.

The suspect is expected to remain in Turkey during the course of the investigation.

He faces 10 years in prison if tried and convicted in Ukraine.


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