Co-pilot hijacks passenger jet to demand aslylum in Switzerland

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An Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot locked his fellow pilot out of the cockpit, hijacked a Rome-bound aircraft and landed in Geneva, all in an attempt to seek asylum in Switzerland, officials said.

The Boeing 767-300 with 202 passengers and crew on board had taken off from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa and landed in the Swiss city at about 6am local time (0500 GMT) yesterday. Officials said no one on the flight was injured and the hijacker was taken into custody after surrendering to police.

The aircraft first sent a distress message while flying over Sudan’s airspace on its way to Rome, an Ethiopian official said.

“From Sudan all the way to Switzerland, the co-pilot took control of the aircraft,” Redwan Hussein, Ethiopia’s communications minister, said. He did not elaborate.

He named the alleged hijacker as Hailemedhin Abera and said he had worked for Ethiopian Airlines for five years. He said Ethiopia will ask for 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,” he said.

Passengers on the aircraft were unaware it had been hijacked, officials said. Even local authorities at first thought the Ethiopian aircraft just wanted to land in Geneva for an emergency refuelling before realising it was hijacked, Geneva police spokesman Eric Grandjean said.

Two Italian fighter jets were scrambled to accompany the aircraft, Geneva airport chief executive Robert Deillon told reporters.

The co-pilot took control of the aircraft when the pilot ventured outside the cockpit, Mr Deillon said. “The pilot went to the toilet and he locked himself in the cockpit,” Mr Deillon said. “(He) wanted asylum in Switzerland.”

A few minutes after landing in Geneva, the co-pilot left the cockpit using a rope, then went to the police forces close to the aircraft and “announced that he was himself the hijacker”, Mr Grandjean said.

It was not immediately clear why the co-pilot wanted asylum. However, Ethiopian Airlines is owned by the government, which has faced persistent criticism over its rights record and alleged intolerance for political dissent.

Police escorted the passengers out one by one, their hands over their heads, from the taxied aircraft to waiting vehicles.

Geneva prosecutor Olivier Jornot said the co-pilot would be charged with taking hostages, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The Swiss federal prosecutor’s office would take over the investigation.

Mr Jornot said the man’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.”

Geneva airport was closed to other flights for about two hours after the hijacked aircraft landed.

Human Rights Watch says Ethiopia’s human rights record had “sharply deteriorated” over the years. The group says authorities severely restricted basic rights of freedom of expression, association and assembly. The government has been accused of targeting journalists, opposition members and minority Muslims.

There have been numerous 
hijackings by Ethiopians, mostly fleeing unrest in the East African nation or avoiding a return.

In 1993, an Ethiopian man smuggled a pistol on to a aircraft and hijacked a Lufthansa flight going from Frankfurt to Addis Ababa. He demanded it be flown to the US because he was denied a visa.

In June and April 1994, Ethiopian Airlines suffered two hijackings at the hands of passengers who demanded to be flown to Europe, according to the Aviation Safety Network, which tracks aviation hijackings.