GENEVA (AFP) - The co-pilot of an Ethiopian Airlines flight hijacked his aircraft on Monday while the captain was in the bathroom and forced it to land in Geneva so that he could seek asylum, police said.
The man was arrested after scaling out of the cockpit window on a rope, according to Geneva police spokesman Eric Grandjean.
The co-pilot said he seized his chance to take over flight ET-702 from Addis Ababa to Rome by locking himself in the cockpit when the pilot went to the bathroom, Mr Grandjean told AFP.
Identified as an Ethiopian citizen born in 1983, the man told police “he felt threatened in his country and wants to seek asylum in Switzerland,” he added.
A total of 202 passengers and crew were on board the Boeing 767 as the drama played out.
“The co-pilot told air transport authorities he had a problem with his plane and needed to fill up with jet-fuel. He then set off a distress signal indicating the plane was hijacked, before saying he had engine trouble,” Mr Grandjean said.
Fighter jets escorted the plane from Italian airspace and it landed in Geneva at 6.02 am local time.
“He parked the plane on the taxiway, he cut the engines then opened the cockpit window, threw out a rope and used it to descend to the tarmac,” Mr Grandjean said.
“He ran towards the police and immediately identified himself as the co-pilot and hijacker.”
The man said he acted alone, but as a precaution all those on board were frisked as they left the plane.
The runway was crowded with police and other emergency vehicles as passengers filed out with their arms up in the air or on their heads before boarding waiting buses.
Geneva’s chief prosecutor Olivier Jornot said there were no signs of violence towards the passengers or fellow crew.
“Of course the fact that a plane is being flown by someone who has committed a hijack means that the passengers were in danger,” Mr Jornot told reporters.
He said the co-pilot’s reasons for feeling in danger in Ethiopia were unclear, as he had not expressed any “political or other motives", and that an asylum claim seemed unlikely to succeed.
“Technically there is no connection between asylum and the fact he committed a crime to come here. But I think his chances are not very high,” he told reporters.
The man risks a 20-year prison sentence, but Mr Jornot said it was too early to say whether his actions warranted such a punishment.
Ethiopia’s Information Minister Redwan Hussein said the co-pilot’s record was under scrutiny.
“I’m now making contact with the airline CEO as to what was wrong with him and if they know anything about him and his background,” Mr Hussein told AFP.
“There was not any threat, there was not any attack or threat attempt made to the passengers, because the only thing (that) happened was between the pilot and the co-pilot,” the minister added.
All flights to and from Geneva were either diverted or cancelled as the drama unfolded, but operations resumed at 8.05am local time, said airport chief executive Robert Deillon.
Up to 30 flights and 4,000 passengers looked set to be affected by the two-hour closure of the airport during the busy ski season, he added.
The last time a hijacked aircraft landed in Switzerland was in 1995, when a Spaniard hijacked a Majorca-Paris flight to protest against France’s Pacific nuclear testing. All on board were unharmed, and the man was ruled to be mentally ill.
In all, 14 hijackings have played out in Switzerland since the first in 1969, when Arab militants seized an Israeli passenger plane at Zurich airport, fatally wounding a pilot.
One hijacker died in the subsequent assault by Israeli special forces and the three others were arrested.