The co-pilot of an Ethiopian Airlines plane hijacked his own aircraft, threatened to crash it and forced a landing in Geneva so he could seek asylum, igniting what one passenger described as “pure fear”.
The Ethiopian locked himself in the cockpit when the captain went to the bathroom during flight ET-702 from Addis Ababa, which was en route to Rome.
He was arrested after landing in Geneva and scaling down a rope out of the cockpit window.
“We thought the co-pilot had gone mad,” Francesco Cuomo, a 25-year-old development economist who was on board, was quoted by Italian media as saying.
“The captain was threatening to open the cockpit door and tried to break it down without success. That’s when we understood that something serious was going on.
“When we started circling over Geneva, there were moments of pure fear,” he said.
The passengers did not realise they had been hijacked until the captain told them after landing. They thought there had been a technical problem.
Addis Ababa identified the hijacker as 31-year-old Hailemedehin Abera Tagegn, who had been working for the airline for five years.
He risks a 20-year prison sentence.
A total of 202 passengers and crew were on board the Boeing 767 as the drama unfolded.
Head of operations at Geneva airport, Xavier Wohlschlag, told the ATS news agency the hijacker’s request to land was initially denied.
The green light was given at 5:30am, as the plane, which was first escorted by Italian fighter jets and later by French ones, circled the region.
It emerged later on Monday that no Swiss fighter jets were scrambled as the hijack happened outside the business hours of the country’s airforce, which operate between 8am and 5pm.
“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,” Swiss police spokesman Eric Grandjean told AFP.
“He ran towards the police and immediately identified himself as the co-pilot and hijacker.”