The 1972 hijacking
Contributed by Aida Kidane, posted on 19 Nov 2005

I recently read a series of articles of the December 8, 1972 Ethiopian Airlines hijacking of Ethiopian University students in Addis Abeba (3). The story is not unique because they were the first group to hijack an airplane. But it is an unusual story which needs to be retold. According to the records, only one hijacker survived the incident.

The sixties and seventies were a period when youth were fired with passion looking to change the system and students of Haile Selassie University (as it was called then) were part of the revolutionary trend. They were mostly university students and workers, namely Marta Mebrahtu, Amanuel Yohannes, Tadelech Kidane Mariam, Yohannes Fekadu, Walelegn Mekonnen, Tesfay Berga and Getachew Habte. The students booked flights to Asmera with a plane destined for Paris . From then, it is not clear what transpired.

Although blame for the hijacking fell on the E.L.F (2), as “foreigners” and “Arab expansionists” the E.P.L.F celebrated them and their heroic deeds. One of the students stands out especially; Marta Mebrahtu, became legendary in a country not accustomed to recognizing women heroines.

Many people came to her burial at the Petrose Paulos cemetery in Addis Abeba, and I remember hearing she was buried wearing a wedding dress as it was said to be customary with Protestants for an unmarried girl.

 A song was written in her memory to celebrate her and encourage others to follow her lead. It was always sung beyond the earshot of the Ethiopian authorities and the lyrics go like this:

Eritreas Success Story

Inquay do anes (let alone I)
Marta qua meyta ab seamy (even Martha perished in the sky)

In a recent book about the Ethiopian revolution, one chapter is entitled “ye Martha hilm” (or Martha’s vision). * According to it, the night prior to the hijacking, Martha she stayed up late putting her words in writing. She wrote about Ethiopian and Eritrean people but in particular, a message to women, encouraging them to fight. The book also contains more dramatic details of the whole incident.

For another member of the group, Amanuel Yohannes, this was his second hijacking no less. He was also known as Amanuel Radio, for his strong voice. In 1971 along with 3 other Addis Abeba University students, he forced a plane to Khartoum and eventually flew safely to Benghazi, Libya. They succeed in avoiding capture and all joined the EPLF. Supposedly, Amanuel was then sent to Addis on a mission.  His mates, the other students who had joined the EPLF, Yohannes Sebhatu, Debesai Gebre Selassie and Musie Tesfamichael were later executed as “Menkae”.

Amanuel, in a daring move, returned to Addis where he passed for a university student boldly walking about in the city and going about his business. He allegedly took the precaution of changing his name to a Muslim one and succeeded in recruiting other hijackers for a new mission. When the hijackers names were read in the news, his was not recognized and it took several months for his family to finally be told of his death.

Walelegn Mekonnen, probably most well known to university students of he day and hence, was a recognized leader, a critical analyst and a writer, majoring in Political Science. Walelegn is remembered as a courageous and principled individual with strong ideological convictions. He, along with and Tilahun Gizaw, another infamous student hero, stood out during the days of the student struggle, leading the base for an Ethiopian revolution and mobilize for a radical social reform. It is said that because Walelegn was very famous, his boarding the plane made the security suspect there was more to it.

Yohannes Fekadu was buried in Asmera and schools were closed for two days seeming half the city buried him at the Italian cemetery as he was a Catholic. It was tense for the authorities fearing some kind of revolt.

 Only one of the hijackers survived and still alive today; Tadelech, the second female hijacker was wounded and jailed for two years. There is no trace of information on the remaining two: Tesfay Berga and Getachew Habte.

* Amhric “Teraroch YankeTeKeTe Twlid” pp. 201-212,



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Other Group attacked Airports & Airlines target (Dec. 8, 1972, Ethiopia)

Incident Date: Dec. 8, 1972

Description: ETHIOPIA. Seven Ethiopian students attempted unsuccessfully to hijack an Ethiopian Airlines aircraft shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa. One of the hijackers exploded a hand grenade which tore a twelve to fifteen inch hole in the floor, damaging electrical wires and some control cables. Eleven were wounded. Six of the hijackers died and one of the women was seriously wounded when she was arrested.
Information Source: Chronology Data 1968-1997
Publication Date: 04/03/2001


                                                           * * * * *

Aircraft hijacking
... hijackings to Cuba. In 1969 there were 82 recorded hijack attempts worldwide, more than twice ... 170 passengers survive. 1996: Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 crashed into the Indian ...
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Since 1947, 60% of hijackings have been refugee escapes. In 1968-69 there was a massive rise in the number of hijacking. In 1968 there were 27 hijackings and attempted hijackings to Cuba. In 1969 there were 82 recorded hijack attempts worldwide, more than twice the total attempts for the whole period 1947-67. Most were Palestinians using hijacks as a political weapon to publicise their cause and to force the Israeli government to releasing Palestinian prisoners from jail.

                                                       * * * * *


Africa Research Bulletin

December 1-31, 1972

Page 2696



Hijackers Shot


Ethiopian security guards, on December 8th, killed seven hijackers who attempted to seize an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing which had just taken off for Paris.  Five men and two women made up the pirate party.  Four passengers and two security men aboard the plane were slightly injured when the pirates threw a hand-grenade.  The Boeing was seriously damaged, but was able to turn back and land safely.


A reliable source said the would-be pirates were students or ex-students of Addis Ababa University and that their leader was apparently a woman. But Ethiopian Airlines would not confirm either the number or the identity of the hijackers.


The Boeing had 94 passengers on board and was on a regular flight to Paris.  The air pirates had booked seats as far as Asmara, capital of the Eritrea, the plane's first stop, about one hour after leaving Addis Ababa.  Despite the regular close search of all passengers leaving Ethiopia, the pirates apparently managed to hide their pistols. One of the two women was carrying the grenade. (EH 9/12)


Radio Addis Ababa reported on December 12th that investigations by the authorities had established that the abortive attempt to hijack an Ethiopian Airlines aircraft had been the work of the "so-called Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), a bandit group under the influence of foreign propaganda." (R. Addis Ababa 12/12)


[The Ethiopian authorities announced on December 13th that one of the hijackers, a woman named Kidane Mariam, had in fact survived.  This had not been announced earlier "for security reasons".]




(Sketch of a fighter holding weapon on one arm and the UN flag on the other, pinning a mouse/person under, and written – HAILE THE VAMPIRE

A New Chapter In Revolutionary Struggle

A heroic attempt to hijack an Ethiopian 720 Fan Jet bound for Paris was made by seven revolutionaries (two of whom were women) on December 8th. 1972.  While six of them determinedly sacrificed their lives the remaining one ( Tadeletch Kidane Mariam) suffered bullet wounds while trying to execute her goal to the end and is now in enemy hands.  The revolutionary heroes who took part in this internationalistic deed were:

1. Ammanuel Yohannes.  During the time when he was a student in the University in-Addis Abeba he took his place in the ranks of the student union, by fighting in an internationalist spirit against oppression with many anti-enemy acts to his credit.  In addition, with three of his heroic comrades, he hijacked a plane from Bahr Dar to Benghazi (Libya) in January 1971; He was a conscious and mature fighter of the People’s Forces, who later on, took part in the many  sacrifices of his comrades in his country battlefield.

2. Wallelign Mekonnen was twice imprisoned by the enemy (1969 and 1970).  His first spell in prison ended by his being released due to his student comrades’ support; his second, due to the consequences of his comrades’ strength of purpose and the fear it caused in the progressive  Ethiopian Students’ Movement; he was a hero who, in the spirit of internationalism, worked to acquaint with and instill faith in the just cause of Eritrea among his comrades and people.

 3. Marta Mebrahtu was a seventh year Medical student in the University in Addis Abeba, who in popular assemblies won wide acclaim as a conscious and mature and determined revolutionary.  Marta’s greatest desire was to serve the people and fighters in the sphere of medicine

4. Getachew Habte.  A fighter of long standing and one of the founders of the Ethiopian Students’ Movement, he was working with undimmed revolutionary ardour after cutting short his studies in the university, to set up and consolidate a revolutionary force.

5.Yohannes Fekadu, a fourth year University student and persevering Eritrean was, previously, while still very young , condemned to live away from his family and his country in exile.

6.Tadeletch Kidane Mariam was an employee of an advertising agency, and a determined progressive who, in collaboration with her comrades, worked for the overthrow of the Feudal-Imperialist Ethiopian Government, and

7.Tesfaye Berega.  Formerly a teacher in the Medhane Alem School, he was unjustly expelled from his job because he expressed his hatred for the rotten Haile Selassie regime to the youth of his country, taught in a private school, and worked in the spirit of self-sacrifice to realise his aims to the end.

Ammanuel Yohannes, Marta and Yohannes Fekadu were Eritreans while Wallelign, Tadeletch, Getachew and Tesfaye were Ethiopians.  This deed which was done by the sons and daughters of the two neighbouring countries explifies the struggle of Eritreans against foreign, colonial rule and for our independence, and the struggle of Ethiopians to destroy Feudalism, in essence, it was done in an internationalist spirit to oppose world imperialism: an unforgettable day and an indelible page in history.  These martyrs’ performance of their national duties for the salvation of the people, for the benefit of oppressed people, rejecting, linguistic, cultural and religious differences.  (and some apparent revolutionaries’ sentiment of chauvinism) was a pioneering act for us.  Its basis lies in a revolutionary duty linked by mutual benefit and standing upon an alliance sealed with blood. They stood for a great aim; the price to be paid, had by necessity to be great and dear.  The liberation of oppressed people is the sacred desire of genuine revolutionaries, and the price to be for it is one’s life, that highest and most valuable sacrifice a human being can offer.


It is for this reason that we do not regard the deaths of these beloved comrades as a sad fate but as an inspiring example because many people have learned by their blood that was spilt; and those (especially women) who have pondered over the circumstances are not few.  We should regard the performance of Yohannes Fekadus' funeral ceremony in Asmara a as an example.  There is absolutely no greater testimony of victory.  It was with this as the basis that Ammanuel’s daily motto was: “either I shall dismantle Haile Selassie’s regime or I shall die on the way”.


By climbing onto the stage of struggle with a high degree of political consciousness to oppose the fascists’ atrocities Marta and Tadeletch have earned the right of not only being in the vanguard of the women of the two countries, Eritrea and Ethiopia, and their rightful place in the ranks of revolutionaries, but also that of instilling courage in people and making them determined as well.


The recent attempt and the sacrifice of lives has raised the standard of the form of struggle one step higher and has become ample witness to the fact that our struggle does not discriminate upon the basis of sex, age, nationality or religious belief and has a lofty internationalist line, work and duty as well.


The heroic deed performed is not one isolated blow upon the enemies of the people of the world (American Imperialism and Ethiopian Feudalism); it is one link in the long chain of our struggle and revolutionary development.  The word of the sacrificed six comrades and Tadeletch Kidane Mariam who is suffering enchained by the enemy is a great herald of the salvation and solidarity of the progressive peoples of the world (especially the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia) in their struggle for an assured people’s and revolutionary victory.


There is no room for reactionaries, opportunists and oppressors (under the cover of citizens). A progressive Eritrean is he who struggles and renders assistance to the oppressed peoples of the world and the progressive Ethiopian is he who believes in the independent existence of Eritrea, and in our struggle and who has internationalist duties.


Because they are pure revolutionaries who know that they are mortals and yet work like immortals, their lives ate short are due to love of the people and hatred of oppression.

Their reward lies in the fruit of their work and in their immortality.

  Victory for the Eritrean Revolution.

Victory for the Ethiopian Revolution.

Eternal glory for the Martyrs

(Beneath is a circle seal with initials E.P.L.F.C)





Seven hijackers killed in gun battle on jet

  Addis Ababa, Dec. 8 – Seven hijackers, two of them women, died today in a furious mid-air gun battle with the security guards as a crippled Ethiopian airliner plummeted towards the ground with a hole torn in its side by a hijacker’s grenade.

   Six of the hijackers were killed in the battle—one of them a woman riddled with bullets as she flung herself across a wounded male accomplice, apparently to shield him from the security guards’ guns.

   The seventh hijacker, mortally wounded in the fighting, died later in hospital. An Ethiopian Airline statement said that it had not been established where the seven hijackers had come from, but they were understood to be Ethiopians from the northern province of Eritrea.

   Nine other people—five passengers, two security guards, and two stewardesses—were treated in hospital for injuries.

   A grenade explosion, which critically injured Dr. Roderick Hilsinger, aged 40, an American professor, ripped a hole on the jet’s side and it dropped rapidly.

   The Ethiopian pilot, locked in his control cabin, with one engine dead and rudder control temporarily lost, got the Boeing 720 B under control and landed it safely at Addis Ababa 25 minutes after it had taken off for Paris with 94 passengers.

   Among the injured were two of a party of 14 Britons returning from a bird-watching holiday in Ethiopia.

   Thirteen minutes after take-off a man appeared at the division between the economy and first-class compartments with a gun and grenade. “This is a hijack”, he said.

   Dr Richard Wylie, of Temple University, Philadelphia said “For the next few minutes it was like a nightmare. Bullets were flying everywhere. The plane was full of smoke from the explosion. Blood was all over the place.” Reuter and UPI

   At Heathrow airport British passengers told of the dramatic struggle. Mrs. John Lodge, of Fareham, Hampshire, whose white trouser suit was stained with a security guard’s blood and who had been cut by flying shrapnel, said “I thought my number was up. A security guard fell across me, bleeding profusely and loading his gun at the same time. When the grenade exploded I really thought that it was the end.

   Mr. George Hart, a businessman of Cottingham, Yorkshire, saw a gun-carrying hijacker brought down in a rugby tackle by a guard whereupon a British couple sat on his legs. Meanwhile, a guard at the back had shot three other hijackers who jumped into the gangway.

                                                                      More passenger stories, page 5



Passengers describe bloody battle on hijacked Ethiopian airliner      

(Picture of a couple: beneath is written:-

Mr. Duncan MacIntosh and his wife, British passengers who helped to overcome hijackers on an Ethiopian aircraft, arrive in Rome)

Rome, Dec 8,-Passengers from the Ethiopian airliner on which seven hijackers died said here tonight that between 30 and 40 shots were fired in the gunbattle.

A British couple- Mr. Duncan MacIntosh, aged 70, of Oaksey, Wiltshire, and his wife-put their feet on one hijacker until security guard shot him dead. “I did a lot of nothing”, Mr MacIntosh said.  "One did what one could to help ".

Pressed by reporters, Mr MacIntosh, who was with a party of 14 British birdwatchers, admitted that he had " helped a bit.  I think we put our feet on him. We were rather anxious that he shouldn't wave his revolver about too much ".

Mrs. MacIntosh, aged 67, suffered an injury to her right shoulder but said that she did not even notice it until after it was all over.  She said that a hijacker stood up next to them waving a gun and a security man knocked him down.  "He went down in front of us, then we held him down while they shot him".

A short time later she noticed blood over her blouse and realized that she had been hit in the shoulder by grenade sharpnel which had gone straight through.

There were five male hijackers and two girls.  Passengers agreed that six of the hijackers were killed on the aircraft. One girl, who died later, had her leg blown off when a grenade exploded at the bulkhead separating the first class from the tourist class passengers.

   An American university professor, Dr. Roderick Hilsinger, injured after he wrestled with the girl to keep her from throwing the grenade into the forward compartment.

   Mr. Laurence Holloway, of Bognor Regis, organizer of the birdwatchers’ tour called “Ornitholoday” said that the grenade “blew a hole right in the floor”.

   “One hijacker was sitting right next to me” said Mr. Frank Gembala of Chicago. “He was very nervous, read newspaper. He took off his shoes—he evidently had a gun in his shoe—and came up with a pistol. All I know then is that a security man started shooting. He fell dead right there in front of me”.

   Mr. Gembala, who said that he had been visiting his family in Ethiopia where they work for the airline, said that the hijackers made a dash for the cabin. “But the security agents were situated around the plane and opened fire from all sides. They did a wonderful job”.

   He added that water began to pour into the cabin after the grenade exploded. “I said to myself this is it”.

   Mr. Walter Hellman, an Ethiopian Airlines official in Addis Ababa who was travelling on the flight, said that the jet was at 33.000ft when the grenade went off. The jet suffered from decompression and lost one engine and control of the nose gear.

   Mr. Gembala, a 62-year-old retired lorry driver, said that the hijacker who sat next to him got up from his seat and waved his newspaper, probably as a signal to the other hijackers.

   After a grenade exploded in one girl hijacker’s hands, Mr Gembala turned and saw the second girl crawling down the aisle of the plane with a pistol in her hand. “A security guard was right behind her,” he said.  “He pumped her head so full of lead she couldn’t pick it up any more.”

   Although the reports were confusing, it seems that the grenade explosion came when a male hijacker pulled the pin but was shot by a security guard. The grenade rolled towards the first class compartment, but after some confusion a girl hijacker ran to pick it up and throw it towards the cockpit. Then it exploded, blowing off one of her legs and injuring several passengers.

   Mr. John Lodge, of Southampton, another passenger, said he believed some of the hijackers’ weapons were hidden in the high-heeled shoes of the girls. – UPI



Students’ story of the Ethiopian hijack

‘Student sources think that the group’s objective was a ransom demand which would provide funds for arming insurrection on the university campus and could promote more widespread guerrilla activity’


The Government controlled media gave Ethiopians a bald account of the attempt hijacking last week of an Ethiopian airliner. Readers were told that the attempt was foiled by Ethiopian security, that six hijackers were killed in an air battle, that a seventh died later in hospital and that an investigation was pending.  An Ethiopian Airlines statement said that the hijackers were understood to be from the northern province of Eritrea.

Information reaching London from Ethiopian students challenges this account and takes the  story much further. The students say that the attempt was not directly connected with the Eritrean problem, but was protest against repression in Haile Selassie I University at Addis Ababa which has been the scene of unrest for years. Six former students were involved, two girls and four boys. The attempt was led by a girl from Axum and the other girl was from Eritrea, but the four boys were from the south.                    

Five students were killed in the air, but the sixth, Telafesh, the Eritrean girl, was taken to the police hospital at Addis Ababa, and was seen alive by sympathizers the day after she was reported dead.  Passengers spoke of three security guards on the plane, but students say four guards are customary, so the seventh person killed may have been a security guard or an Ethiopian passenger with no connection with the student group. Ethiopian passengers were detained for questioning after the plane landed, but since release have been in touch with student friends of the would-be hijackers.

Telafesh, who may have survived the attempt, is said by friends to be a quiet girl and an unlikely person to be involved in such a venture.  She left the University without completing her course at a time when many of the students were expelled. Until about a month ago she was working in an advertising agency in Addis Ababa, and had, uncharacteristically spoken approvingly of the shootings by Japanese at Lod airport in Israel.

   Martha, who died in the air battle, is said to have been the leader of the group and a very different character. She is the daughter of a senior Ethiopian military man, and is described as a good orator, attractive and extremely intelligent. She was a medical student who completed her course in 1971, but had remained in contact with the underground student movement.

   The group worked clandestinely and their precise objectives are not known to other students, though it was known that a hijack attempt was under discussion.

   The friends of the hijackers say two of the group were positioned at the back of the aircraft to keep cabin staff out of the way and four were at the front of the economy section hoping to break through to the pilot to give their demands. The student sources think that the group’s objective was a ransom demand which would provide funds for arming insurrection on the university campus, and could promote more widespread guerrilla activity. The students explain that the hijacking was intended to draw attention to their plight in the face of increasingly strict security control. They claim to have intercepted instructions to the police to shoot on campus in a situation that might lead to riots in Addis Ababa.

   University students have reacted strongly to hijacking in which they say security guards were the first to open fire, though the group had smuggled arms abroad in their boots. A secret meeting was held on the campus last Saturday and the students were planning to boycott classes and to stage a demonstration of sympathy. Ethiopian security officials are aware of the plan and they will possibly have been prevented. Security checks, already in force on the campus, were stepped up immediately after the hijacking attempt, and in any case large meetings are forbidden. The students still have some leaders and talk in the past few days has indicated that protest will continue and could bring more bloodshed.

                                                                                         Michael Wolfers




Selassie’s secret siege of Asmara

THE TIMES FEBRUARY 15, 1972.  Page 15

Asmara, Ethiopia, Feb 14

   Asmara, the small Italianate capital of the Eritrean province is being held by Ethiopia in state of siege, part military and part bureaucratic.  Movement by local people and foreigners into and out of the capital, from neighbouring ports and trading centres, is strictly controlled, and roads are guarded by police and troops.

Movement of goods is even more closely watched, for fear that supplies should fall into the hands of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF).  The result is an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion, though the ELF are officially regarded as merely a handful of " bandits making propaganda from foreign sanctuaries ".

This description was given to me here by Lieutenant-General Debebe Haile Mariam, the Military Governor General appointed by Emperor Haile Selassie.

Any assessment of the Eritrean situation is coloured by the official Ethiopian policy of pretending in public that the problem scarcely exists and of keeping all mention of it from the national news media under total government control.

   It is clear that 20 years after a United Nations decision to federate Eritrea with Ethiopia, and 10 years after an Eritrean Parliamentary vote for full integration, a miniature war goes on, but its dimensions cannot be determined.

    Informed observers say that the fighters are more and more sectarian Muslims opposing Christian influence and that within the Islamic grouping there is serious factionalism. It is not a territorial war, but the ELF rely on a lightning strike and the dramatic gesture to symbolize their opposition-the victims in Samara talk of "terrorism" and the backers in Damascus talk of “nationalism”.

   The ELF have in the past come into Asmara or other towns to " execute " high Ethiopian officials, including a former military Commander, or Eritreans who actively support the central Government.

   The latest move, made early in January and attested to by numerous responsible informants, was to raid a customs warehouse in the heart of town, close to the Governor General's own residence, for a substantial quantity of arms.  Customs sources indicate that the haul included one or two machineguns, as well as rifles held for the preventive customs forces.

I raised this matter with General Debebe, his considered reply was: ' No raid of the kind has been committed in the customs office.  Certain members of the finance police have got away with obsolete weapons and old uniforms." He said that there were no cases where " bandits " have entered the town.

On the other hand, the state of emergency has brought controls that to and outsider seem to make sense only if the authorities fear that there is wide potential support, even in Asmara, for the ELF.  General Debebe asserted that the controls to "maintain law and order" would last only as long as was necessary.

   Last week I took the ordinary bus along the 70-mile road to Eritrea's port on the Red Sea at Massawa.  The bus, crowded With peasants and workers, was stopped every half hour or so by police or military, and there were five complete identity checks of all male passengers-women are apparently immune-and searches for arms of varying degrees of thoroughness.

The road, a main commercial route, was under intense surveillance. The Ethiopian Army garrison has troop transport, machine guns, armoured cars and wireless cars; and is earlier in the week the Emperor had been in Massawa for navy celebrations, the military hardware was fully in evidence.

It is possible to avoid the roadblocks on the Massawa road by flying between the port and the 

capital. However, airline passengers are even more rigorously searched for weapons and explosive, because of past ELF attacks on Ethiopian Airlines craft.

General Debebe told me blandly that the situation in Eritrea was "as calm as it should be " The official optimism may be dangerous.  The issues that divide the community may not be particularly Eritrean. There are social problems in shortages of jobs that are found throughout the country.  It can be difficult for an Ethiopian to leave his country for work elsewhere, and beggary and prostitution are rife.

There is some resentment from the Tigrinya-speaking people of Eritrea that the administration passes more and more firmly into the hands of Amharic-speaking people from the centre of the country.  The Amhara administrators are mostly Christian, whereas large parts of Eritrea follow Islam.

The Army and police, which are nationally recruited, can even unintentionally make difficulties for the Eritrean people, though General Debebe said that the policy was to keep the security forces out of the ordinary life of the people and to use them for the protection of life and property and "to root out bandits."  

Michael Wolfers
Africa Corresponden

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