ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The Ethiopian pilot who hijacked a flight to Rome and took it to Geneva recently lost his uncle, a relative said Tuesday, suggesting anguish over the death may have left him on edge.
Alemu Asmamaw, another uncle, told The Associated Press in a phone interview that 31-year-old co-pilot Hailemedhin Abera was in emotional distress over the past month following the sudden death of “a very close” uncle.
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. He did not say how Hailemedhin’s uncle died.
An obituary for Emiru on the Addis Ababa University website said the associate professor in the university’s department of zoological sciences died suddenly 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 co-pilot diverted the plane to Geneva, where he used a rope to lower himself out of a window and then asked for political asylum.
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.
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 the sky.
The family was “extremely shocked” that Hailemedhin hijacked a plane, Alemu said, describing his nephew as “too proud of Ethiopian Airlines.” He said the pilot was a devoted Christian who “even used to ask his father to pray for him to return safe” from international flights.
“They never imagined that he would do such things ever,” he said of the hijacking.
After he was arrested by Swiss authorities, police said Hailemedhin told them he felt “threatened” in Ethiopia. Police did not specify why or by whom he claimed to feel threatened.
Ethiopian Airlines is owned by Ethiopia’s government, which has faced persistent criticism over its rights record and its alleged intolerance of political dissent.
Redwan Hussein, a spokesman for Ethiopia’s government, told reporters on Monday that Hailemedhin had no prior criminal record. Redwan said the government would seek Hailemedhin’s extradition from Switzerland, where he is now in custody.
It wasn’t immediately clear why he chose Switzerland, where Swiss voters recently demanded curbs on immigration. However, Italy has a reputation among many Africans as not being hospitable to asylum seekers.
Geneva prosecutor Olivier Jornot said the co-pilot will be charged with taking hostages, a crime punishable by up to 20 years.