By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
February 17, 2014 (ADDIS ABABA) - An Ethiopian co-pilot on Monday sought asylum in Switzerland after he hijacked an Ethiopian Airlines passenger plane en route from Addis Ababa to Rome via Khartoum.
- Swiss police evacuate passengers on board an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737, which was hijacked en route from Addis Ababa to Rome on Monday (AFP)
The hijacker, identified as Hailemedhin Abera, took control of the plane after locking the cockpit shortly after the captain left the flight deck to use the toilet.
According to the Ethiopian government, the hijacking drama began while the plane was in Sudanese airspace.
Once in Italian airspace, Abera, diverted the plane’s route to the Swiss capital, Geneva, where he subsequently asked for asylum.
According to media reports, Abera descended to the tarmac after landing, using a rope thrown from the cockpit window.
Abera admitted he had carried out the hijacking under subsequent questioning by Swiss police.
He claimed to have force-landed the plane in Geneva for fear of prosecution in Ethiopia, without providing further details.
Speaking at a news conference later the same day, Ethiopia’s information minister, Redwne Hussein, thanked the Swiss government for facilitating the plane’s safe landing.
He said the hijacker could face at least 20 years behind bars for hijacking and hostage-taking.
Both Ethiopia and Switzerland are signatory to the international convention on aircraft hijacking, with Abera expected to be extradited to his home country face the charges.
In cockpit recordings shortly after landing, the hijacker is heard asking for asylum, as well as seeking assurances from Swiss authorities he would not be transferred to Ethiopia.
Swiss police said the man was unarmed and did not behave in a threatening or violent manner towards passengers, who were reportedly unaware a hijacking was in progress until landing in Geneva, where the plane was swiftly surrounded by police.
One Ethiopian Airline official told Sudan Tribune that passengers didn’t notice the hijacking drama going on behind the scenes, as crew sought to prevent causing any panic among passengers.
According to the official, 193 passengers were on board the 767-300 Boeing aircraft at the time, including 140 Italians, 11 Americans and 10 Ethiopians.
The hijacking incident is the first to occur in the flag carrier’s recent history, which is among the largest and most successful on the African continent.