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Saturday August 29th, 2015 12:57PM

Passenger: Hijacker threatened to crash plane

By The Associated Press
GENEVA (AP) -- An Italian passenger says the man who hijacked an Ethiopian Airlines jet threatened to crash it if the pilot kept trying to get back into the cockpit.

The plane from Ethiopia to Italy was hijacked Monday and diverted to Geneva by its co-pilot, who Swiss officials said locked the pilot out of the cockpit after he went to the bathroom.

The Italian news agency ANSA quoted passenger Francesco Cuomo as saying the pilot was demanding that the hijacker open the door and tried to break it down without success.

Cuomo, 25, was quoted as saying the hijacker, speaking in poor English on a loudspeaker, threatened to crash the plane in response and then the oxygen masks came down.

The hijacker surrendered to police in Switzerland and all passengers were safe.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

GENEVA (AP) - An Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot locked his colleague out of the cockpit, hijacked a Rome-bound plane and landed Monday in Geneva, all in an attempt to seek asylum in Switzerland, officials said.

The Boeing 767-300 plane had taken off from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. It was scheduled to stop first in Milan before Rome, but sent a distress message over Sudan and landed in the Swiss city about 6 a.m. (0500 GMT).

Officials said no one on the flight was injured and the hijacker was taken into custody after surrendering to Swiss police.

"The pilot went to the toilet and he (the co-pilot) locked himself in the cockpit," Geneva airport chief executive Robert Deillon told reporters. "(He) wanted asylum in Switzerland."

It wasn't immediately clear why the co-pilot, an Ethiopian man born in 1983, wanted asylum. It also was unclear why he chose Switzerland which, unlike Italy, isn't a member of the 28-nation European Union and where voters recently demanded curbs on immigration.

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

The plane first sent a distress message while flying over Sudan's airspace en route to Europe, according to Ethiopia's communications minister, Redwan Hussein.

"From Sudan all the way to Switzerland, the co-pilot took control of the plane," he said.

Two Italian fighter jets were scrambled to accompany the plane.

Redwan named the alleged hijacker as Hailemedhin Abera and said he had worked for Ethiopian Airlines for five years. He said Ethiopia will ask for his extradition.

"His action represents a gross betrayal of trust that needlessly endangered the lives of the very passengers that a pilot is morally and professionally obliged to safeguard," Redwan said.

Passengers on the plane - 139 Italians, 11 Americans, 10 Ethiopians, five Nigerians and four French citizens, among others - were unaware at the time that it had been hijacked, officials said. Redwan said the plane was carrying 200 people including seven crew.

Swiss authorities at first thought the Ethiopian plane just wanted to land in Geneva for an emergency refueling before realizing it was being hijacked, Geneva police spokesman Eric Grandjean said.

A few minutes after landing in Geneva, the co-pilot left the cockpit using a rope, then went to police forces close to the aircraft and "announced that he was himself the hijacker," Grandjean said.

Police escorted the plane's passengers out one by one, their hands over their heads, from the taxied plane to waiting vehicles. Geneva airport was closed down for about two hours after the hijacked plane landed.

Geneva prosecutor Olivier Jornot said the co-pilot will be charged with taking hostages, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The Swiss federal prosecutors' office said later Monday that it had taken over the case.

Jornot said the hijacker's chances of winning asylum were slim.

"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."

Both Italy and Switzerland, however, do not extradite those who may face the death penalty at home.

By Monday afternoon, the plane's Milan-bound passengers had been put on buses from Geneva to the northern Italian city, while those heading to other destinations were put on alternative flights. The plane was still in Geneva and it wasn't clear when it would leave, authorities said.

The leader of Ethiopia's opposition Blue party, Yilikal Getnet, said he believed the hijacker was trying to make a statement about the political situation in Ethiopia, where the late strongman Meles Zenawi's party has dominated politics since the 1990s.

"I think he took the measure to convey a message that the ... government is not in line with the public," he said.

Human Rights Watch says Ethiopia's human rights record "has sharply deteriorated" over the years. The rights group says authorities severely restrict basic rights of freedom of expression, association and assembly. The government has also been accused of targeting journalists, opposition members and minority Muslims.

There have been at least eight hijackings by Ethiopians or involving Ethiopian planes in the last 25 years.

The deadliest came in 1996, when hijackers stormed the cockpit of a flight from Ethiopia to Ivory Coast via Kenya, demanding that the plane go to Australia. The plane ran out of fuel and crashed off the island nation of Comoros, killing 125 of the 175 people aboard.

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