Co-pilot hijacked Ethiopian plane

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The co-pilot of an Ethiopian Airlines plane flying from Addis Ababa to Rome has hijacked the aircraft and landed in Geneva, Swiss police say.

The hijacker – who has been arrested – waited for the pilot to go to the toilet to lock himself in the cockpit. He was unarmed. He has requested asylum in Switzerland.

The airline said in a statement that all 202 passengers and crew were safe.

Geneva airport, which was closed for a time, has now reopened.

An Ethiopian man born in 1983, the co-pilot has sought asylum due to fear of persecution in Ethiopia, police said at a news conference.

Geneva airport chief executive Robert Deillon says the co-pilot handed himself over to police

After locking himself in the cockpit, he asked to refuel at Geneva, landed the plane, climbed down from the cockpit window using a rope (available in the cockpit), and gave himself up to police.

He was unarmed and there was no risk at any time to crew or passengers, police said.

The situation inside the plane remained calm throughout.

The co-pilot himself alerted the authorities to the plane’s hijacking, officials added – and passengers on the plane were unaware it had been hijacked.

The only possible offence the co-pilot could be charged with is that of hostage-taking, for which he could face up to 20 years of imprisonment, a Geneva prosecutor said at the news conference.

Flight 702 was scheduled to leave the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, at 00:30 local time (21:30 GMT), and arrive in Rome at 04:40 local time.

The Boeing 767-300 made an unscheduled landing in the Swiss city at 06:00.

The evacuation of passengers began at about 07:25 (local time); they were all searched twice and have been questioned by police.

The hijacking began over Italy, and two fighter jets – probably Italian – were scrambled to accompany the plane,  Deillon said at the news conference.

The last hijacking to take place at Geneva airport was that of an Air Afrique plane in 1985.

Swiss authorities detained the hijacker as 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 Reuters witness said.

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

“We don’t know where they are from or how many they are but it looks like the hijacker or hijackers boarded the flight in Khartoum,” Redwan told Reuters shortly before police announced they had detained the assailant.

State-run Ethiopian television said there had been 193 passengers on board the Boeing aircraft, including 140 Italian nationals.

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.

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.

Ethiopian nationals and the Horn of Africa country’s flag carrier have been involved in several hijackings in the past.

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 U.S. 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.

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