CAIRO — The daylong hijacking of an Ethiopian Airlines jet ended today when five men who had forced the aircraft on an odyssey that took it from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, Yemen, Egypt and Italy gave themselves up in Rome. Italy offered political asylum to the five gunmen, a senior police official in Rome said.
The offer was made after all-night negotiations at Rome's Ciampino military airport between the hijackers and Italian police and government representatives, airport security chief Mario Esposito said.
"The situation is under control and we think the hijack is almost over," the British news agency Reuters quoted him as saying.
Esposito said the men, believed to be armed with grenades, had said they were dissidents opposed to the Ethiopian government.
Exhausted Egyptian officials who boarded the plane before it left Cairo, its last stop before Rome, shortly after midnight said the flight carried only a nine-member crew and the hijackers--all believed to be Ethiopians--when it took off from a deserted runway at Cairo International Airport.
Seventy-nine passengers originally on the flight, the third Ethiopian Airlines plane to be hijacked in the past year, were allowed to leave the plane after its first stop at Djibouti, the officials said.
In Rome, police officials said there was no information on whether the hijackers were armed, but the Italian news agency ANSA said the hijackers had automatic rifles and pistols.
The hijackers' plans or demands were not immediately known. An Ethiopian Airlines official had begun talks with the hijackers shortly after they touched down in Ciampino, about 10 miles south of Rome.
Original reports that the hijackers were holding Britain's ambassador to Yemen, Mark Marshall, were denied by the British Foreign Office, which said that Marshall was on vacation.
Egyptian authorities initially ad thought the aircraft contained a British official or some other passenger, the security official said, but they later discounted the idea. "To let all the passengers off and just keep one person, it's not logical," he said.
Hijackers of the Boeing 727, which took off Saturday from the Ethiopian capital, originally sought permission to land at Sana, the capital of Yemen, but diverted to Djibouti when Sana denied permission.
Yemeni officials then granted the plane permission to land at the southern port city of Aden in exchange for releasing the plane's passengers in Djibouti. Egyptian officials said all the passengers had been released.
In Aden, the hijackers had sought access to British and U.S. diplomats, according to news agency reports from Yemen. Two U.N. officials arrived at the airport with Yemen government officials to negotiate for the surrender of the hijackers, but the talks reached a deadlock when the hijackers refused to give themselves up except to U.S. or British officials, according to the reports.
Thirteen hours after arriving in Aden, the plane took off again, landing in Cairo when it ran short of fuel. "We didn't allow them in the beginning to land, but unfortunately they had to, because they had no fuel. We had no choice," said an Egyptian official who spoke with the hijackers.
The hijackers' only demand in Cairo was for 35,000 liters of fuel. "As far as we know, it is an Ethiopian matter. It has nothing to do with us," another Egyptian official said.
In the previous hijackings of two Ethiopian planes--one in November in Djibouti and one in April in Kenya--the hijackers were former members of the security apparatus of deposed Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam.