By Wesley Satterwhite,
International News Writer
An Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot hijacked a flight bound for Rome last week on Monday before landing in Geneva, where he sought asylum.
The co-pilot, Hailemedhin Abera Tegegn, took control of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 702, which started in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, while the captain left the cockpit to use the restroom. He then locked the door of the cockpit, alerted Italian air traffic control that the aircraft needed fuel, and then sent a transponder code, warning them that the aircraft had been hijacked.
According to Ethiopia’s communication minister, the aircraft squawked a distress signal over Sudanese airspace. “From Sudan all the way to Switzerland, the co-pilot took control of the plane,” said the minister, Redwan Hussein.
Italian air force fighter jets were then scrambled and escorted the aircraft out of Italian airspace.
At 6:02 a.m., the aircraft landed in Geneva, Switzerland. Hailemedhin had then turned off the engines, and lowered himself from the cockpit using a rope. He ran to responding emergency personnel, stating that he was the hijacker and needed asylum in Switzerland.
In a message on the Ethiopian Airlines website, all 202 passengers and crew members were safe. The airline made arrangements for all of them to get to their destinations. Many passengers were unaware that the aircraft had been hijacked until they noticed that they had landed in Switzerland.
Ethiopian Airlines is wholly owned by the Ethiopian government. Ethiopia has been alleged to have an intolerance of political dissent and a shaky rights record.
“His act has been motivated by the fact that he feels threatened in his country and wants to make an asylum claim in Switzerland,” Swiss police spokesman, Philippe Grangean, said. However, as an Ethiopian citizen, Hailemdhin could have left the country easily, proving his tactics illogical.
Hailemdhin may now face serious prison time. Oliver Jornot, a Genevan prosecutor, says that the co-pilot could face charges for taking hostages, which is up to 20 years in prison. He also says that his chances for asylum are minimal. “Technically, there is no connection between asylum and the fact he committed a crime to come here,” he said, “but I think his chances are not very high.”
The last time an Ethiopian Airlines aircraft was hijacked was in 1996. 125 people died after the aircraft crashed in the Indian Ocean when it ran out of fuel. The hijackers were attempting to reach Australia to seek asylum there.
Although the hijacking of airliners by crew members is extremely rare, it too has happened before. In 1953, Czechoslovak Airlines pilot, Mira Slovak, locked his co-pilot out of the cockpit on a flight to Brno from Prague carrying 25 passengers. Slovak diverted the aircraft to Frankfurt where he received political asylum from West Germany.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 25 print edition.
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