An Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot locked the pilot out of the cockpit, hijacked the plane bound for Italy and diverted it to Geneva where he asked for asylum.

One passenger said the hijacker threatened to crash the plane if the pilot did not stop pounding on the locked door. Another said passengers were terrified “for hours” as the plane careened across the sky.

The Boeing 767-300 took off from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa on an overnight flight to Milan and Rome, but an Ethiopian official said it sent a distress message over Sudan that it had been hijacked. Once the plane was over Europe, two Italian fighter jets and later French jets were scrambled to accompany it.

The plane, supposed to go to Milan first, landed in Geneva at about 6am local time (0500 GMT). Officials said no one on the flight was injured and the hijacker was taken into custody after surrendering to Swiss police.

“The pilot went to the toilet and he (the co-pilot) locked himself in the cockpit,” Geneva airport chief executive Robert Deillon told reporters. “(He) wanted asylum in Switzerland.”

It was not clear why the co-pilot, a 31-year-old Ethiopian, chose Switzerland, where voters recently demanded curbs on immigration. Italy, however, has a reputation among many Africans as not being hospitable to asylum seekers.

Ethiopian Airlines is owned by Ethiopia’s government, which has faced persistent criticism over its rights record and its alleged intolerance of political dissent. Geneva police said the co-pilot claimed he felt threatened in Ethiopia.

An Italian passenger on board, Francesco Cuomo, told the Italian news agency ANSA some passengers woke up shortly after midnight when the plane started to “bounce”.

“The pilot was threatening to open the cockpit door and tried to knock it down,” said Mr Cuomo, a 25-year-old economist. “At this point, a message was transmitted in poor English, but the threat to crash the plane was clearly understood.”

Oxygen masks then came down, he said, making everyone very tense.

Ethiopia’s communications minister, Redwan Hussein, named the alleged hijacker as Hailemedhin Abera and said the man had worked for Ethiopian Airlines for five years. He said Ethiopia will seek his extradition.


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