Police in Geneva have charged an Ethiopian pilot with hijacking his own aircraft in an attempt to seek asylum in Switzerland.
The co-pilot of the Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa to Rome locked himself in the cockpit early yesterday morning when the main pilot left to use the toilet.
The man, named by the AFP news agency as Hailemedehin Abera Tagegn, requested permission to refuel at Geneva airport before announcing he had hijacked the aircraft. After landing just after 6am in Geneva, accompanied by two airforce aircraft, the unarmed man climbed out the cockpit window using a rope and sought out police.
All 202 people on board, including one Irish citizen, were reported safe yesterday. A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said the Irish citizen was well and had been offered consular assistance.
Ethiopian Airlines said there was no risk to the crew or passengers at any time during the incident and that most were unaware of the hijack. However passengers disputed this version of events, telling Italian news agency Ansa of frantic scenes as the pilot tried to regain access to the cockpit.
“The hijacking began about 20 minutes after midnight when we were still over Sudan, ” said one passenger, Franceso Cuomo, to Ansa. “The plane began to rock and the passengers woke up. We heard the pilot ordering the co-pilot to open the door, then he tried in vain to force it open.”
After this, the co-pilot inside the cockpit addressed passengers directly in broken English over the intercom. “He said he’d let the plane crash if the pilot didn’t stop trying to force open the cockpit door,” said Ms Cuomo.
Another unnamed passenger told Ansa: “The air pirate screamed over the intercom and, all of a sudden, the oxygen masks dropped down.”
The Boeing 767-300 left the Ethiopian capital at 12.30am local time yesterday and was scheduled to arrive in Rome at 4.40am. After the pilot handed himself over to police, passengers were evacuated individually from the aircraft and brought to a waiting bus. Geneva airport closed for a time after the aircraft landed but was soon re-opened.
“The man said he felt threatened in his country and wants to seek asylum in Switzerland – he didn’t have a weapon with him,” said an airport spokesman at a press conference. The man, said to be aged 30 or 31, could face up to 20 years in prison for hostage-taking, according to police, with his action unlikely to have a positive effect on his asylum application.
The last hijacking to take place at Geneva airport involved an Air Afrique aircraft in 1985. The last Ethiopian Airlines hijack ended in disaster in 1996 when three people demanded asylum in Australia and took control of an aircraft. It eventually ran out of fuel and crashed into the Indian Ocean killing all but 60 of the 175 people onboard.