Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot hijacks plane to seek Geneva asylum
A recording from the cockpit revealed the co-pilot’s asylum plea
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.
Such high-profile incidents of political asylum-seeking are uncommon in Ethiopia.
But dozens of members of a rebel group, the ONLF, have sought asylum in the West and neighbouring countries over the past decade, fleeing a military counter-insurgency campaign in the Ogaden region bordering Somalia.
Human Rights Watch has accused the Ethiopian government of at times forcibly returning asylum seekers with the help of neighbouring states. The Ethiopian government denies these claims.
Some Ethiopian journalists have also sought political refuge abroad, fleeing anti-terrorism laws – which criminalise comments critical of the government. Dozens have been imprisoned under the laws, including prominent blogger Eskinder Nega, jailed for 18 years.
There are also thousands of Ethiopians who leave the country for economic reasons. Despite having one of the fastest growing economies globally, Ethiopia remains poor with many living on under $2 (£1.20) a day.
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.
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.
Geneva airport chief executive Robert Deillon says the co-pilot handed himself over to police
The evacuation of passengers began at about 07:25; 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, Geneva airport chief executive Robert Deillon said at the news conference.
This incident is a blow to Ethiopia Airlines, which has long prided itself as one of the continent’s best performing carriers, says BBC Addis Ababa correspondent Emmanuel Igunza.
It reported $143m in operating profit in the last financial year. Other carriers recorded reduced profit margins or losses due to a combination of high fuel prices and the global economic recession, our correspondent adds.
The last hijacking to take place at Geneva airport was that of an Air Afrique plane in 1985.
In 1996, an Ethiopian Airlines flight was hijacked by three Ethiopians who wanted to claim asylum in Australia. It ran out of fuel and crashed into the Indian Ocean near the Comoros islands, killing 125 of the 175 people on board.