Accused Copilot in Ethiopian Airlines Hijacking Identified

Passenger says pilot threatened to "crash the airplane."

ByABC News
February 17, 2014, 1:18 AM

Feb. 17, 2014— -- Authorities today identified the copilot who allegedly hijacked an Ethiopian Airlines plane bound for Rome today and flew it to Switzerland where he wanted to seek asylum as 31-year-old Hailemedhin Abera.

VIDEO: Ethiopian Airlines Plane Hijacked; Suspect Arrested

Geneva Airport chief executive Robert Deillon told reporters that the copilot took control of the Boeing 767 carrying 200 passengers and crew when the pilot left the cockpit.

"The pilot went to the toilet and he [the copilot] locked himself in the cockpit," Deillon said. "[He] wanted asylum in Switzerland. That's the motivation of the hijacking."

Sources told ABC News that 11 Americans were on board the flight.

Flight 702 departed Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital city, at 12:30 a.m. today local time and was supposed to last for about six hours.

The copilot alerted authorities to the plane's hijacking, officials added. Passengers on the plane were not immediately aware it had been hijacked.

Within minutes, however, travelers were jolted awake as the plane started to careen and bounce in the air. One passenger told Italian media that the copilot came over the loudspeaker and even threatened to "crash the airplane."

Another passengers said oxygen masks fell as the plane "seemed like it was falling from the sky."

VIDEO: Passengers React Aboard Ethiopian Airlines flight

For 90 minutes, the plane circled over Switzerland as the copilot reportedly warned that fuel was running dangerously low. Italian and French fighter jets were scrambled because the Swiss Air Force does not report to work till 8 a.m. for budget reasons.

After landing in Geneva, the copilot exited the cockpit window using a rope and turned himself in to authorities. Shaken passengers were escorted off the plane under guard in Geneva.

Geneva prosecutor Olivier Jornot said Swiss federal authorities were investigating the hijacking and would press charges that could carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

Geneva airport was initially closed to other flights, but operations resumed around two hours after the hijacked plane landed.

According to a press release issued by Ethiopian Airlines, all passengers and crew are safe.

"Ethiopian Airlines is making immediate arrangements to fly its esteemed customers on-board the flight to their intended destinations," the statement reads.

ABC News' Terry Moran and The Associated Press contributed to this report.