Friday, February 12, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hijacker's Atlantic Ticket: A Starter's Pistol


NEW YORK - The man who carried out the first trans-Atlantic hijacking in 16 years was armed with what turned out to be a starter's pistol smuggled aboard the Lufthansa jet with a little sleight of hand, authorities say.

The Ethiopian student accused of the hijacking was ordered held without bail today at his arraignment in federal court.

No one was injured during the 11-hour ordeal, which began over Austria about 40 minutes into yesterday's flight. It ended when the Airbus 310 with 104 people aboard landed at Kennedy Airport and the hijacker surrendered.

Nebiu Zewolde Demeke, 20, an Ethiopian student living in Morocco, made two demands: that the plane be flown to New York and that he receive political asylum, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Roche said. Initial reports that Demeke also demanded the United States intervene in Bosnia were false, Roche said.

Demeke was charged with air piracy, which carries 20 years to life in prison.

Flight 592 had taken off from Frankfurt, Germany, for Cairo, Egypt, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when the hijacker stormed into the cockpit, pointed a gun at the pilot and said, "If you do not turn west, I'll shoot you," recalled the captain, Gerhard Goebel.

Demeke got the gun past security at Frankfurt airport by hiding it under his hat, placing the hat on a table as he passed through a metal detector, then picking up the hat as he headed for the plane, a law-enforcement source said.

The gun turned out to be a starter's pistol that fired only blanks.

The hijacker threatened a flight attendant and several passengers, and the captain struck a deal with him. "I said that if he would give me the gun, I would give him my sunglasses," Goebel said.

After landing, the jet taxied to a remote area of the airport. Twenty minutes later, the gunman gave the gun to the captain, who held it up to the plane's window to show officers outside. Goebel took off his sunglasses and handed them to the hijacker.

When he surrendered, the hijacker left behind the hat and a note for the pilot, said James Fox, head of the FBI's New York office. The note read: "Thank you. Here's yours. Tschuss" - German for "So long."

"The captain was supercool. The passengers were supercool," said Feodor Governeur, a passenger from Venezuela.

The last time a hijacked plane crossed the Atlantic was in September 1976, the FAA said. Five Croatian nationalists forced a New York-to-Chicago TWA flight to Paris, where they surrendered.

The Lufthansa jet carried 94 passengers and 10 crew members.

Governeur said the flight was going smoothly until the captain announced: "There's a young gentleman on board who does not want to go to Cairo, and he has a gun pointed at my head."

The plane was diverted to Hanover, Germany, where it was refueled. German officials said they let it take off for New York because the gunman threatened to kill hostages. German authorities also said the hijacker gave assurances he would surrender once he arrived in the United States.

Goebel described the hijacker as "extremely nervous, high-strung, and I considered him to be extremely dangerous."

Dozens of FBI agents, police and airport officers were spread around Kennedy as the plane landed. The hijacker walked off the plane with his hands behind his head and was seized by law-enforcement agents.

Germany's interior minister, Rudolf Seiters, ordered an inspection at Frankfurt airport, the busiest on the European continent.

The airport was criticized after a bomb that was smuggled through Frankfurt blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland, in 1988, killing 270 people.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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