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Copilot hijacks Ethiopian plane

Diverts flight from Rome to Geneva to seek asylum

GENEVA — Locking the pilot out of the cockpit, an Ethiopian Airlines copilot hijacked a plane bound for Italy on Monday and diverted it to Geneva, where he asked for asylum, officials said.

One passenger said the hijacker threatened to crash the plane if the pilot didn’t stop pounding on the locked door. Another passenger said he was terrified for several hours as the plane flew erratically across the sky.

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The Boeing 767-300 took off from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa on an overnight flight to Milan and then Rome, but an Ethiopian official said it sent a distress message over Sudan that it had been hijacked.

Once the plane was over Europe, two Italian fighter jets and later French jets were scrambled to accompany it.

The plane landed in Geneva about 6 a.m. 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 copilot] locked himself in the cockpit,’’ Geneva airport chief executive Robert Deillon told reporters. ‘‘[He] wanted asylum in Switzerland.’’

Geneva police said the copilot, 31-year-old Hailemedhin Abera of Ethiopia, said he felt threatened at home.

It was not immediately clear why he chose Switzerland over Italy. Swiss voters recently demanded curbs on immigration and Italy has a reputation among many Africans as not being hospitable to asylum seekers.

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

Abera had worked for Ethiopian Airlines for five years and had no criminal record, said Ethiopia’s communications minister, Redwan Hussein, adding that Ethiopia will seek 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.

One passenger, Francesco Cuomo, told the Italian news agency ANSA that he and other passengers woke up shortly after midnight when the plane started to ‘‘bounce.’’

‘‘The pilot was threatening [the hijacker] to open the cockpit door and tried to knock it down without succeeding,’’ said Cuomo, a 25-year-old economist from Italy.

‘‘At this point, a message was transmitted by the loudspeakers in poor English, but the threat to crash the airplane was clearly understood,’’ he added.

Redwan said the plane was carrying 200 people, including seven crew members.

They included 139 Italians, 11 Americans, 10 Ethiopians, five Nigerians, and four French citizens, he said.

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