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Ethiopia pilot was distraught over death in family

Police stood guard near the hijacked Ethiopian Airlines jet in a Geneva airport Monday.

Denis Balibouse/REUTERS

Police stood guard near the hijacked Ethiopian Airlines jet in a Geneva airport Monday.

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The Ethiopian pilot who hijacked a flight to Rome and took it to Geneva had recently lost his uncle, a relative said Tuesday, suggesting anguish over the death may have left him on edge.

Alemu Asmamaw, another uncle, said in a phone interview that 31-year-old copilot Hailemedhin Abera was in emotional distress over the past month following the sudden death of ‘‘a very close’’ uncle.

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The pilot used to call family members before his international trips, but had since stopped doing so and appeared to distance himself from his relatives, Alemu said.

‘‘I fear that the death of his uncle . . . has put a strain on his life,’’ he said. He named the deceased uncle as Emiru Seyoum and said he taught at Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa University.

An obituary for Emiru on the Addis Ababa University website said the associate professor in the university’s department of zoological sciences died on Jan. 1 while going from his home to the university.

That obituary said his ‘‘unfortunate and untimely death was very much shocking and incomprehensible’’ to his colleagues at work. It gave no details about how he died.

Hailemedhin, who had worked for Ethiopian Airlines for five years, on Monday locked the pilot of a Rome-bound flight out of the cockpit and then as copilot diverted the plane to Geneva.

The jetliner carrying 200 passengers and crew took off from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on a flight to Milan and then Rome, but sent a distress message over Sudan that it had been hijacked, an Ethiopian official said. Once the plane was over Europe, two Italian fighter jets and later French jets were scrambled to accompany it.

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