Clear83° WeatherClear83° Weather

Co-pilot hijacks plane to Geneva, seeks asylum (w/video)

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

The Boeing 767-300 plane with 202 passengers and crew had taken off from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa and landed in the Swiss city 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 police.

It wasn't immediately clear why the co-pilot, an Ethiopian man born in 1983 whose name wasn't released, wanted asylum. However, Ethiopian Airlines is owned by Ethiopia's government, which has faced persistent criticism over its rights record and alleged intolerance of political dissent.

The plane first sent a distress message while flying over Sudan's airspace on its way to Rome, Ethiopia's communications minister said.

"From Sudan all the way to Switzerland, the co-pilot took control of the plane," said the minister, Redwan Hussein. He didn't elaborate but added that the pilot was Italian.

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

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

The co-pilot took control of the plane when the pilot ventured outside the cockpit, Deillon said.

"The pilot went to the toilet and he (the co-pilot) locked himself in the cockpit," 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," 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 to other flights for about two hours after the hijacked plane landed.

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

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."

The leader of Ethiopia's opposition Blue party, Yilikal Getnet, said he believes the hijacker was trying to make a statement about the political situation in Ethiopia, where the party of the late strongman Meles Zenawi has dominated politics since the 1990s.

"I think he took the measure to convey a message that the ... government is not in line with the public and people are not impressed by what the government says," 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 and 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 returning home — and some have involved the national carrier.

In 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.

The following year, five armed men seized an Ethiopian Airlines jetliner and demanded the plane be flown to Greece and then Sweden. It was instead diverted to Al Obeid, 300 miles (480 kilometers) west of Khartoum, Sudan.

At a glance

Previous hijackings involving Ethiopians:

Nov. 25, 1991: Two men and an Ethiopian woman brandishing fake hand grenades hijacked an Ethiopian Airlines jet carrying 88 people on a domestic flight, then freed all those aboard after landing in Djibouti.

Aug. 28-30, 1992: Four Ethiopians hijack an Ethiopian Airlines jet on a domestic flight and force it to fly to Djibouti, where they release their hostages. They surrender after flying to Italy and asking for asylum.

Feb. 11, 1993: An Ethiopian man smuggled a pistol onto a plane and hijacked a Lufthansa flight going from Frankfurt to Addis Ababa. He demanded it be flown to the U.S. because he was denied a visa. He surrendered to authorities in New York after the plane landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Nov. 9, 1995: An Ethiopian man trying to avoid going home used a knife from a food tray to commandeer an Olympic Airlines jet from Australia, where he was being deported from, just before it landed in Athens, Greece. Police overpowered the hijacker with no injuries to the 114 people on board.

March 17, 1995: Five armed men seized an Ethiopian Airlines jetliner and demanded the plane be flown to Greece and then Sweden. It was instead diverted to Al Obeid, 300 miles (480 kilometers) west of Khartoum, Sudan where the hijackers surrendered, ending a 24-hour standoff after Sudan promised to help them seek asylum in Sweden.

November 1996: Hijackers storm cockpit of flight from Ethiopia to Ivory Coast via Kenya, demanding to go to Australia. The plane runs out of fuel and crashes off the island nation of Comoros, killing 125 of the 175 people aboard.

April 26, 2001: Five military pilot trainees who flunked flight school reportedly wrested control of a plane during a flight from Bahr Dar, in northwestern Ethiopia, to Addis Ababa and demanded to be flown to Saudi Arabia. The plane didn't have enough fuel so it landed in neighboring Sudan.

June 9, 2002: Two passengers armed with small knives and an explosive device attempted to hijack a domestic Ethiopian flight but were shot and killed by in-flight security, according to the Aviation Safety Network.

Co-pilot hijacks plane to Geneva, seeks asylum (w/video) 02/17/14 [Last modified: Monday, February 17, 2014 10:10am]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...