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Co-Pilot Arrested After Ethiopian Airlines Jet Hijacked

Image: Police officers stand around hijacked Ethiopian Airlines flight ET 702 at Cointrin airport in Geneva

Police officers at Geneva Airport after an Ethiopian Airlines jet was hijacked. DENIS BALIBOUSE / Reuters

A passenger jet flying from Ethiopia to Rome was hijacked early Monday by the co-pilot, who took control of the aircraft while the pilot was in the bathroom, diverted it to Switzerland and then fled out the cockpit window — into the hands of police, officials said.

Geneva airport chief executive Robert Deillon told reporters that the co-pilot — an Ethiopian who wanted to seek asylum in Switzerland — locked himself in the cockpit apparently while the plane was over Sudan.

One passenger told the Associated Press that the hijacker, identified as 31-year-old Hailemedhin Abera, threatened to crash the plane if the pilot didn't stop pounding on the locked door.

At one point, the plane made a dive and oxygen masks fell from the ceiling, passengers told Italian media.

"It seemed like it was falling from the sky," Diego Carpelli, 45, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

"Someone in an intimidating tone said we should put on our oxygen masks."

Co-Pilot Hijacks Ethiopian Plane 2:12

Once the plane carrying 200 passengers and crew was over Europe, military fighter jets were scrambled to accompany it. When the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767 landed in Geneva, Abera fled through a window on a rope.

A video from a passenger aboard the hijacked flight, published on the website of Italian newspaper La Repubblica, shows a dimly lit airplane, fallen face masks and the pilot explaining what had happened.

Passenger Enrico Cattabiani recorded the pilot speaking over the PA system after the plane had landed, showing other passengers sitting and standing around the seats.

"About an hour after takeoff all was going well," the pilot says in Italian.

"Then I went briefly to the toilet, and the first officer, who was alone in the cockpit, took control of the plane and didn't allow me back into the cockpit."

The pilot explains to his passengers that since September 11, once the doors are locked, there is no way of getting back in.

"He is not armed," the pilot told his passengers in Italian. "So there are no risks."

Still, according to La Repubblica, one passenger said "I thought of my wife and began to pray."

Geneva police spokesman Eric Grandjean said that when the co-pilot approached officers on the ground he "announced that he was himself the hijacker."

Authorities said Abera's chances of being granted asylum were slim.

He will be charged win Switzerland with hostage-taking, a crime that carries up to 20 years in prison.

And Ethiopia will seek to extradite and prosecute him for the hijacking, which could land him a 25-year prison term.

"Technically there is no connection between asylum and the fact he committed a crime to come here," Geneva prosecutor Olivier Jornot said.

"But I think his chances are not very high."

The drama caused the cancellation of some short-haul flights and some incoming flights were diverted to other airports.

Ethiopian Airlines is owned by Ethiopia's government, which has faced persistent criticism over its rights record and alleged intolerance for political dissent.

Co-pilot hijacks plane to Geneva, asks for asylum 1:08
Image: The flight circled Geneva airport before landing, according to Flightradar24.com
The flight circled Geneva airport before landing, according to Flightradar24.com. Flightradar24.com

Rohit Kachroo and Rebekah Smyth of NBC News, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.