GENEVA — It seemed like a routine overnight flight until the Ethiopian Airlines jetliner went into a dive and oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling. Only then did the terrified passengers — bound for Italy from Addis Ababa — realize something was terribly wrong.
The co-pilot locked his captain from the cockpit, commandeered the plane and headed for Geneva, where he asked for political asylum, although authorities said a prison cell is more likely.
One passenger said the hijacker threatened to crash the plane if the pilot didn’t stop pounding on the locked door.
Another said he was terrified “for hours” Monday as the plane careened across the sky.
The Boeing 767-300 took off from the Ethiopian capital on an overnight flight to Milan and then Rome, but it sent a distress message over Sudan that it was hijacked, an Ethiopian official said. Once the plane was over Europe, two Italian fighter jets and later French jets were scrambled to accompany it.
Italian Air Force Col. Girolamo Iadiciccio said the order to scramble came from NATO to ensure the plane didn’t harm national security and didn’t stray off-route.
The plane landed in Geneva at about 6 a.m. 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 wasn’t immediately clear why he chose Switzerland instead of Italy. Swiss voters recently demanded curbs on immigration and Italy has a reputation among many Africans as not being hospitable to asylum seekers.
Ethiopian Airlines is owned by Ethiopia’s government, which faced persistent criticism about its rights record and its alleged intolerance of political dissent.
The alleged hijacker was identified as Hailemedhin Abera, a 31-year-old Ethiopian man who worked for Ethiopian Airlines for five years and had no criminal record, Ethiopia’s communications minister, Redwan Hussein, said, adding Ethiopia will seek his extradition. Geneva police said he claimed he felt threatened at home.
“His action represents a gross betrayal of trust that needlessly endangered the lives of the very passengers that a pilot is morally and professionally obliged to safeguard,” Redwan said.
One passenger, Francesco Cuomo, told the Italian news agency ANSA he and other passengers woke up shortly after midnight when the plane started to “bounce.”
“The pilot was threatening (the hijacker) to open the cockpit door and tried to knock it down without succeeding,” said Cuomo, a 25-year-old economist from Italy.
“At this point, a message was transmitted by the loudspeakers in poor English, but the threat to crash the airplane was clearly understood,” he added.