By John Heilprin—
GENEVA (AP) — Locking the pilot out of the cockpit, an Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot hijacked a plane bound for Italy on Monday and diverted it to Geneva, where he asked for asylum, officials said.
One passenger said the hijacker threatened to crash the plane if the pilot didn’t stop pounding on the locked door. Another said he was terrified “for hours” as the plane careened across the sky.
The Boeing 767-300 took off from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa on an overnight flight to Milan and then Rome, but an Ethiopian official said it sent a distress message over Sudan that it had been hijacked. Once the plane was over Europe, two Italian fighter jets and later French jets were scrambled to accompany it.
The plane landed in Geneva at about 6 a.m. (0500 GMT). Officials said no one on the flight was injured and the hijacker was taken into custody after surrendering to Swiss police.
“The pilot went to the toilet and he (the co-pilot) locked himself in the cockpit,” Geneva airport chief executive Robert Deillon told reporters. “(He) wanted asylum in Switzerland.”
Geneva police said the co-pilot, a 31-year-old Ethiopian man, claimed he felt threatened at home.
It wasn’t immediately clear why he chose Switzerland over Italy. Swiss voters recently demanded curbs on immigration and Italy has a reputation among many Africans as not being hospitable to asylum seekers.
Ethiopian Airlines is owned by Ethiopia’s government, which has faced persistent criticism over its rights record and its alleged intolerance of political dissent.
The alleged hijacker is Hailemedhin Abera, a man who had worked for Ethiopian Airlines for five years and had no criminal record, Ethiopia’s communications minister, Redwan Hussein, said, adding that Ethiopia will seek his extradition.
“His action represents a gross betrayal of trust that needlessly endangered the lives of the very passengers that a pilot is morally and professionally obliged to safeguard,” Redwan said.
One passenger, Francesco Cuomo, told the Italian news agency ANSA that he and other passengers woke up shortly after midnight when the plane started to “bounce.”
“The pilot was threatening (the hijacker) to open the cockpit door and tried to knock it down without succeeding,” said Cuomo, a 25-year-old economist from Italy.
“At this point, a message was transmitted by the loudspeakers in poor English, but the threat to crash the airplane was clearly understood,” he added.
Oxygen masks then came down, he said, making everyone on the plane very tense.
“We had no clue about the hijacking but got scared when the plane suddenly started diving, it seemed like it was falling from the sky,” Italian passenger Diego Carpelli, 45, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
Carpelli was returning to his native Rome from a vacation in Kenya with his family.
“Someone in an intimidating tone said we should put on our oxygen masks,” Carpelli said, adding that he was terrified for the rest of the flight.
Redwan said the plane was carrying 200 people, including seven crew members. They included 139 Italians, 11 Americans, 10 Ethiopians, five Nigerians and four French citizens, he said.
Swiss authorities at first thought the Ethiopian plane just wanted to land in Geneva for an emergency refueling before realizing it was being hijacked, Geneva police spokesman Eric Grandjean said.
A few minutes after landing in Geneva, the co-pilot left the cockpit using a rope, then went to police forces close to the aircraft and “announced that he was himself the hijacker,” Grandjean said.
Police escorted the plane’s passengers out one by one, their hands over their heads, from the taxied plane to waiting vehicles. Geneva airport was closed down for about two hours.
Geneva prosecutor Olivier Jornot said the co-pilot will be charged with taking hostages, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison in Switzerland. In Ethiopia, he could face up to 25 years in prison for the hijacking.
Jornot said the hijacker’s chances of winning asylum were slim.
“Technically there is no connection between asylum and the fact he committed a crime to come here,” he said. “But I think his chances are not very high.”
The Swiss federal prosecutors’ office took over the case later Monday.
Passengers going to Milan were put on buses, while those going to Rome and elsewhere got alternative flights home. The plane remained at Geneva airport and officials said they did not know when it would be removed.
The leader of Ethiopia’s opposition Blue party, Yilikal Getnet, said he believed the hijacker was trying to make a statement about the political situation in Ethiopia.
“I think he took the measure to convey a message that the … government is not in line with the public,” he said.
Human Rights Watch says Ethiopia’s human rights record “has sharply deteriorated” over the years. The rights group says authorities severely restrict basic rights of freedom of expression, association and assembly. The government has also been accused of targeting journalists, opposition members and minority Muslims.
There have been at least eight hijackings by Ethiopians or involving Ethiopian planes in the last 25 years.
The deadliest came in 1996, when hijackers stormed the cockpit of a flight from Ethiopia to Ivory Coast via Kenya, demanding that the plane go to Australia. The plane ran out of fuel and crashed off the island nation of Comoros, killing 125 of the 175 people aboard.