Africa

Co-pilot hijacks Ethiopian plane 'for asylum'

Tom Miles

A co-pilot who hijacked and diverted an Ethiopian Airlines flight in search of asylum, is being questioned by police, say authorities.

A police vehicle guards the front of the hijacked Ethiopian Airlines flight ET 702 after passengers disembarked at Cointrin Airport in Geneva. (Reuters)

A hijacked Ethiopian plane that landed at Geneva airport early on Monday was diverted from Rome by the co-pilot, who sought asylum due to fear of persecution in Ethiopia, police spokesperson Pierre Grangean told a news conference.

The unnamed co-pilot, an Ethiopian born in 1983, locked the cockpit door when the pilot went to the toilet. He then asked to refuel at Geneva, landed the plane, climbed down from the cockpit window on a rope, and gave himself up to police.

He was unarmed and there was no risk at any time to crew or passengers, Grangean said. The co-pilot is being questioned by police.

Passengers left the plane parked near the end of the runway and were checked by police as they held their hands on their necks, before boarding a bus, a witness said.

Airport police said the situation was "under control" after flight ET 702 had been diverted from its original destination of Rome. The airline earlier said the flight from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa had been "forced to proceed" to Geneva.

Scheduled stop
Swiss police did not immediately identify the hijacker.

An Ethiopian government spokesperson, Redwan Hussein, said the flight had made a scheduled stop in the Sudanese capital Khartoum where he said the hijacker might have boarded the flight.

State-run Ethiopian television said there had been 193 passengers on board the Boeing aircraft.

The brief drama in Geneva on Monday morning caused the cancellation of some short-haul flights and some incoming flights were diverted to other airports. Hundreds of passengers booked on disrupted flights scrambled to change their tickets.

Asylum
In an apparent recording of a radio communication between the aircraft and air traffic control posted on the social media site Twitter, a demand for asylum was made.

Reuters could not independently verify the authenticity of the recording and it was not immediately clear whether it was a hijacker or pilot speaking from the plane.

"We need asylum or assurance we will not be transferred to the Ethiopian government," the voice in the recording said, posted by Twitter user @MatthewKeysLive.

A flight tracking app for mobile devices showed the flight circling over the Swiss city several times before landing.

In 1993, an Ethiopian used a gun hidden in his hat to hijack a German passenger jet bound for New York. He was later sentenced to 20 years in a US prison.

Two years later, police in Greece overpowered an Ethiopian hijacker who held a knife to the throat of an Olympic Airways stewardess and demanded political asylum.

At least 50 people were killed when a hijacked Ethiopian Airlines passenger jet crashed in the Indian Ocean in 1996. In 2001, a dozen Ethiopian students hijacked a plane carrying around 60 people and flew to Sudan. – Reuters

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