GENEVA - The co-pilot of an Ethiopian Airlines plane hijacked his aircraft Monday while the captain was in the bathroom and forced it to land in Geneva so he could seek asylum, police said.
The Ethiopian was swiftly arrested after scaling down a rope out of the cockpit window, and prosecutors said the chances of his demands being met were slim.
The co-pilot said he seized his chance to take over flight ET-702 from Addis Ababa to Rome by locking himself in the cockpit when the pilot went to the bathroom, police spokesman Eric Grandjean told AFP.
Addis Ababa identified the man as 31-year-old Hailemedehin Abera Tagegn, who had been working for the airline for five years, and said he was "medically sane".
The co-pilot-turned-hijacker told police "he felt threatened in his country and wants to seek asylum in Switzerland," Grandjean said.
A total of 202 passengers and crew were on board the Boeing 767 as the drama unfolded.
"The co-pilot told air transport authorities he had a problem with his plane and needed to fill up with jet-fuel. He then set off a distress signal indicating the plane was hijacked, before saying he had engine trouble," Grandjean said.
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 not given until around 5:30 am (0430 GMT), as the passenger jet, which was first escorted by Italian fighter jets and later reportedly by French ones, circled the region.
It finally landed in Geneva at 6:02 am, about an hour and a half after it was due in Rome.
"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," Grandjean said.
"He ran towards the police and immediately identified himself as the co-pilot and hijacker."
Tagegn said he acted alone, but as a precaution all those on board were frisked as they left the plane.
The runway was crowded with police and other emergency vehicles as passengers filed out with their arms up in the air or on their heads before boarding waiting buses.
No signs of violence
Geneva's chief prosecutor Olivier Jornot said there were no signs of violence towards the passengers or crew.
He said Tagegn's reasons for feeling in danger in Ethiopia were unclear, as he had not expressed any "political or other motives", and that an asylum claim seemed unlikely to succeed.
"Technically there is no connection between asylum and the fact he committed a crime to come here. But I think his chances are not very high," he told reporters.
The man risks a 20-year prison sentence.
"So far it is known that he was medically sane, until otherwise is proven through the investigation which is going on right now," Ethiopian Information Minister Redwan Hussein told reporters in Addis Ababa.
He said the hijacking had not been violent.
"There was not any threat, there was not any attack or threat attempt made to the passengers, because the only thing (that) happened was between the pilot and the co-pilot," he told AFP.
Flights to and from Geneva were either diverted or cancelled during the drama, but operations resumed about two hours later, said airport chief executive Robert Deillon.
Up to 30 flights and 4,000 passengers flying during the busy ski season were estimate to to be affected, he added.
The last time a hijacked aircraft landed in Switzerland was in 1995, when a Spaniard hijacked a Majorca-Paris flight to protest at France's Pacific nuclear testing.
All on board were unharmed, and the man was ruled to be mentally ill.
In all, 14 hijackings have occurred in Switzerland since 1969, when Arab militants seized an Israeli passenger plane at Zurich airport, fatally wounding a pilot.
One hijacker died in a subsequent assault by Israeli special forces and three others were arrested.