A co-pilot on an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa to Rome hijacked the plane he was flying and landed it in Geneva early Monday morning, in attempt to win political asylum in Switzerland. Many of the up to 202 passengers aboard the plane did not even know of the hijacking until they were on the ground in Geneva, and all are safe.
The co-pilot, an Ethiopian man in his early 30s, took control of the plane while the other pilot was in the bathroom and reported it as a hijacking to air traffic controllers on the ground, according to Swiss officials. He then turned the flight towards Geneva International Airport, where he landed after telling the Swiss control tower that you "you have to give us lastly permission on board for asylum." He eventually landed the plane without an answer to his demand, and immediately turned himself over to Swiss authorities — who say they will press charges and that he culprit could face up to 20 years in prison.
Swiss Police spokesman Pierre Grangean described the scene in a news conference, saying:
Just after landing, the co-pilot came out of the cockpit and ran to the police and said, 'I'm the hijacker.' He said he is not safe in his own country and wants asylum.
Government-owned Ethiopian Airlines made an understated reference to the event on its website, writing:
Ethiopian Airlines flight 702, on scheduled service departing from Addis Ababa on 17 February 2014 at 00:30 (local time) and scheduled to arrive in Rome at 04:40 (local time), was forced to proceed to Geneva Airport. Accordingly, the flight has landed safely at Geneva Airport and all passengers and crew are safe at Geneva Airport. The cause of the diversion of the flight is under investigation.
Former Reuters social media editor Matthew Keys uploaded unconfirmed audio recorded from radio, in which the co-pilot reportedly requests asylum from the Swiss tower.
NEW AUDIO: Ethiopian Air 702 pilot says he's leaving plane through the aircraft's window - https://t.co/njNGRLbGOc— Matthew Keys (@MatthewKeysLive) February 17, 2014
Keys told the BBC that he first saw the story on Twitter, when a user near Geneva spoke of a disturbance by the airport. He was able "upon digging" to learn that a hijacked plane was circling, and that the co-pilot asked for political asylum. Keys added,
From the audio that I heard... it appeared that he was pretty calm throughout the entire flight. He spoke in very clear and very calm English. And the air traffic reporter really did a great job, from the recordings, keeping the situation under control.
The Associated Press notes that it is not the first time Ethiopians have used desperate measures to try to find a way out of the country:
An Ethiopian man smuggled a pistol onto a plane and hijacked a Lufthansa flight going from Frankfurt to Addis Ababa in 1993. He demanded it be flown to the U.S. because he was denied a visa. In June and April 1994, Ethiopian Airlines suffered two hijackings at the hands of passengers who demanded to be flown to Europe, according to the Aviation Safety Network, which tracks aviation hijackings and other incidents. In 1995, an Ethiopian man trying to avoid being sent back home used a knife from a food tray to commandeer an Olympic Airlines jet just before it landed in Athens, Greece.
Ethiopia's human rights record is notoriously poor. In a 2013 report, Human Rights Watch noted that conditions in the country have deteriorated over the past few years, saying that "Ethiopian authorities continued to severely restrict basic rights of freedom of expression, association, and assembly in 2012."
Earlier this week, a (probably drunkenly) passenger attempted and failed to hijack an Turkish airplane and divert it to Sochi. We hope this doesn't denote the start of a new hijacking trend, but we're happy both attempts have been nonviolent and noneffective.