Plane from Ukraine grounded in Istanbul after bomb threat

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By Evrim Ergin

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish security forces seized a Ukrainian man who made a bomb threat and tried to hijack a passenger plane, demanding to go to the Winter Olympics venue of Sochi, a Transport Ministry official told Reuters on Friday.

Earlier Turkey had scrambled an F-16 fighter jet to accompany the Pegasus Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane with 110 passengers on board as it landed at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport after a flight from the Ukrainian city of Kharkov.

“Security forces seized the hijacker, there were no casualties,” the official said, adding that all passengers were evacuated from the plane shortly beforehand.

Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu told reporters after the operation that the suspect was a 45-year-old Ukrainian man who had a small bag with electronic goods but no bomb.

A photograph displayed by the broadcaster NTV showed a man wearing a red, white and blue sports top, believed to be the suspect, standing up from his seat near the front of the plane as a steward looked on.

Video footage also showed passengers sitting calmly on the aircraft before the operation was carried out.

The governor had arrived at the airport earlier in the evening to take charge of a crisis center to handle the incident. Ambulances and fire engines were sent to the scene.

The plane landed in Istanbul at 6:05 pm (1605 GMT) and various Turkish media outlets reported earlier in the evening that the suspect had been seized, but the operation to capture him did not happen until shortly before 10 pm (2000 GMT).

The reports had said the suspect was believed to have drunk alcohol. The governor did not confirm those reports.

Several U.S. and European security officials have said that last-minute intelligence reports about possible Olympics-related attacks continue to flow into Western agencies.

President Vladimir Putin has staked his political and personal prestige on the Sochi Games, intended to show how far Russia has come since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. A bombing, hijacking or hostage crisis would seriously threaten those ambitions.

(Reporting by Orhan Coskun, Daren Butler and Evrim Ergin; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Dasha Afanasieva and Sonya Hepinstall)