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Hijacked plane lands in Geneva

Swiss police have arrested one person over the hijacking of an Ethiopian Airlines flight that was forced to land in Geneva on Monday.

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Geneva: A co-pilot who hijacked an Ethiopian Airlines flight to seek asylum in Switzerland on Monday surrendered to police at Geneva airport after jumping out of a cockpit window and scrambling down an emergency rope.

The airliner's second-in-command, named by Ethiopia as Hailemedhin Abera Tegegn, 31, took control of the plane when the pilot left the cockpit to use the toilet. He then sent a coded signal announcing he had hijacked his own aircraft.

With the airliner on the tarmac, an unarmed Mr Hailemedhin made his exit via a cockpit window, without harming passengers or crew, police spokesman Pierre Grangean told a news conference.

Police officers help passengers disembark from the hijacked Ethiopian Airlines flight.

Police officers help passengers disembark from the hijacked Ethiopian Airlines flight. Photo: Reuters

"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," Mr Grangean said.

The airliner could later be seen with a knotted yellow rope dangling from an open cockpit window.

The opposition and rights campaigners in Ethiopia accuse the government of stifling dissent and torturing political detainees. But it is rare for state officials and employees - Ethiopian Airlines is run by the state - to seek asylum. The last senior official to do so fled to the United States in 2009.

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The Ethiopian Airlines flight on the tarmac at Geneva. Photo: Harriet Hadfield/SkyNews

Geneva airport spokesman Bertrand Staempfli said the hijacker would go before a judge later on Monday, local time. 

A Geneva prosecutor, Olivier Jornot, said the co-pilot would be charged with taking hostages, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison, The Associated Press reported. He added that the man'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."

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The plane's flight path over Geneva airport.

Ethiopia said Mr Hailemedhin had worked for Ethiopian Airlines for the past five years and had no criminal record.

"So far it was known that he was medically sane, until otherwise he is proven through the investigation which is going on right now," spokesman for the Ethiopian government Redwan Hussein said.

Mr Redwan said Ethiopia may ask for his extradition.

Ethiopian Airlines pilots had visas to travel freely to Europe, he said, adding that it made no sense to hijack one's own plane given "that the anti-hijacking law in any country is severe" and can lead to up to 20 years in prison.

Mr Redwan said among the 193 passengers on board the Boeing aircraft were 139 Italians, 11 American and four French nationals.

Flight ET702 departed the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on Sunday evening and was bound for Rome. The plane was hijacked at about 330am GMT while over northern Italy, Mr Grangean said. It landed at Geneva at 5.02am (GMT).

He said the co-pilot locked the flight deck door when the pilot went to the toilet. He then asked to refuel at Geneva, landed the plane, climbed down on an emergency exit rope from a cockpit window, and gave himself up.

Chief executive of Geneva airport Robert Deillon said air traffic controllers learnt the plane had been hijacked when the co-pilot keyed a distress code into the aircraft's transponder,

"There is ... a code for hijack. So this co-pilot put in the code for 'I just hijacked the aircraft'," he said. As the plane was over Italy at the time, two Italian Eurofighters were scrambled to accompany it, he said.

Online flight watchers reported picking up a "Squawk 7500" hijack radio code coming from Ethiopian Airlines flight ET702 about 3.30pm, Sydney time.

The Boeing 767's bizarre flight pattern was plotted live online on flightradar24.com. The site showed the plane making multiple circles around the airport before finally landing.

In an apparent recording of a radio communication between the Ethiopian plane and air traffic control posted on social media site Twitter, a demand for asylum was made.

"We need asylum or assurance we will not be transferred to the Ethiopian government," the voice in the recording, apparently the co-pilot, said.

Reuters could not independently verify the authenticity of the recording.

The brief drama in Geneva on Monday morning caused the cancellation of some short-haul flights and some incoming flights were diverted to other airports. Hundreds of passengers booked on disrupted flights sought to change their tickets. The airport reopened at around 8.45am local time

Ethiopian nationals and the country's flag carrier have been involved in several hijackings in the past. At least 50 people were killed when a hijacked Ethiopian Airlines passenger jet crashed in the Indian Ocean in 1996.

with Alexandra Back, Reuters, AP, AFP