ISTANBUL // Turkish commandos shot dead the Kurdish hijacker of a ferry west of Istanbul in a predawn raid yesterday, amid speculation the boat was about to head for a nearby prison island where a Kurdish rebel leader is being held.
Idris Nahin Sahin, Turkey's interior minister, said the hijacker, identified as Mensur Guzel, 27, was exhausted after long telephone negotiations with officials through the night.
Guzel, who carried plastic explosives on his body, had seized control of the ferry Kartepe at 6.30pm on Friday.
"The last telephone call lasted more than an hour", Mr Sahin told the Turkish news channel NTV.
"When the terrorist could not be convinced to give up, Sat commandos in civilian clothes started the operation." Sat is a special forces unit of the Turkish armed forces comparable to the US Navy Seals.
The soldiers boarded the Kartepe in the waters off Silivri, a city west of Istanbul on the northern shore of the Sea of Marmara, at 5.45am yesterday and killed Guzel.
Mr Sahin said the time was chosen because it ensured "maximum psychological and physical exhaustion" of the hijacker. Passengers told Turkish media they opened the ship's door for the Sat team and later heard five or six shots. None of the 18 passengers or six crew were hurt.
Mr Sahin said Guzel was carrying three pieces of A-4 plastic explosives, each about 500 grams.
Huseyin Avni Mutlu, the governor of Istanbul, told reporters it was clear from contacts with the hijacker he had been "a member of the terrorist organisation", a term used for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a rebel group that has been fighting against Ankara since 1984. Mr Sahin said Guzel had been identified as the local leader of the PKK's youth organisation in the city of Kocaeli south of Istanbul, the region where Guzel had boarded the Kartepe on Friday.
The minister said Guzel, who was born in Diyarbakir, the biggest city in Turkey's Kurdish region, was a "poor folk's kid who was tricked" into joining the PKK and had been trained by the rebels.
It remained unclear yesterday what the hijacker was trying to achieve.
The CNN-Turk news channel reported the Kartepe turned south shortly before it stopped off Silivri as its fuel ran out.
Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK's founder, has been serving a life sentence on the prison island of Imrali, about 100 kilometres south of Silivri.
Other Turkish media reported security on Imrali was stepped up on Friday because officials were concerned Guzel would try to reach the island with the Kartepe. The hijacker demanded more fuel for the ship, but there was no confirmation Guzel wanted to go to Imrali.
But some Turkish officials questioned whether the incident was related to the Kurdish conflict.
Ercan Topaca, Kocaeli's governor, said late on Friday the hijacker was carrying a fake bomb made of wires and bottles. Mr Topaca also voiced suspicions over Guzel's connection with the PKK. "The first findings strengthen the possibility that this was a simple incident" without links to PKK, the semi-official Anatolia news agency quoted him saying.