GENEVA -- It seemed like a routine overnight flight until the Ethiopian Airlines jetliner went into a dive, and oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling. Only then did the terrified passengers -- bound for Italy from Addis Ababa -- realize that something was terribly wrong.
The co-pilot had locked his captain from the cockpit, commandeered the plane and headed for Geneva, where he used a rope to lower himself out of a window, then asked for political asylum. Authorities say a prison cell is more likely.
One passenger said the hijacker threatened to crash the plane if the pilot didn't stop pounding on the locked door. Another said he was terrified "for hours" Monday, as the plane careened across North Africa, the Mediterranean and Italy. "It seemed like it was falling from the sky," Italian passenger Diego Carpelli, 45, said of the Boeing 767-300.
The jetliner, carrying 200 passengers and crew, took off from the Ethiopian capital 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 sent to accompany it.
Italian Air Force Col. Girolamo Iadiciccio said the order to scramble came from NATO to ensure the plane didn't harm national security or stray off-route.
The plane landed in Geneva about 6 a.m. local time. Officials said no one on the flight was hurt, and the hijacker was taken into custody after surrendering to Swiss police.
"The pilot went to the toilet, and [the co-pilot] locked himself in the cockpit," Geneva airport chief executive Robert Deillon told reporters. He "wanted asylum in Switzerland."
It wasn't immediately clear why he chose Switzerland, where Swiss voters recently demanded curbs on immigration. But 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. Geneva police said he claimed that he felt threatened at home.
The co-pilot was identified as Hailemedhin Abera, 31, an Ethiopian who 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.
Among the 200 people on board were seven crew members, as well as 139 Italians, 11 Americans, 10 Ethiopians, five Nigerians and four French citizens.
Swiss authorities initially thought the Ethiopian plane wanted to land in Geneva for emergency refueling before realizing that it was being hijacked, Geneva police spokesman Eric Grandjean said.
Police escorted the passengers out of the jetliner one by one, their hands over their heads, and took them to waiting vehicles.
Geneva airport was closed down for about two hours.
Geneva prosecutor Olivier Jornot said the co-pilot will be charged with taking hostages, a crime punishable by as much as 20 years in prison in Switzerland. In Ethiopia, he could face as much as 25 years for the hijacking.
Mr. Jornot said the hijacker'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."
The Swiss federal prosecutors' office took the case later Monday.
Passengers going to Milan were put on buses, while those going to Rome and elsewhere got alternative flights home.