Co-pilot held as hijacked plane lands in Geneva

Man who took control of plane while pilot was in toilet wanted asylum in Switzerland

Swiss authorities have detained the hijacker of an Ethiopian Airlines flight that was forced to land at Geneva’s international airport this morning. A Swiss official said the co-pilot took control of the aircraft while the pilot was in the toilet.

Mon, Feb 17, 2014, 09:57

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

The Boeing 767-300 plane 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.

Officials said no one on the flight was injured and the hijacker was taken into custody after surrendering to police. The plane 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 plane,” Redwan Hussein, Ethiopia’s communications minister, said. He did not elaborate. But passengers on the plane were unaware it had been hijacked, officials said.

Even local authorities at first thought the Ethiopian plane 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 plane, Geneva airport chief executive Robert Deillon told reporters.

The co-pilot, an Ethiopian man born in 1983, took control of the plane 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, whose name was not released, wanted asylum.

However, Ethiopian Airlines is owned by Ethiopia’s 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 plane to waiting vehicles.

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.

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 plane landed.

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 plane 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.

Reuters