French authorities grounded a Nicaragua-bound flight carrying 303 Indian passengers on suspicion of human trafficking.
The Airbus A340, flying from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was grounded at the small Vatry airport in the middle of Champagne country on Thursday following an “anonymous tip-off” that the flight was carrying suspected victims of human trafficking.
Two people were taken into custody pending further examination, while the rest of the passengers and crew on the flight operated by Romania-based charter company Legend Airlines were being questioned, the Paris prosecutor’s office said in a statement.
“Identity checks are being carried on the 303 passengers and on the cabin crew,” the prosecutor’s office added.
The investigation was being led by France’s anti-organised crime unit JUNALCO, Le Monde reported.
Authorities were also checking the conditions in which the passengers were being transported along with verifying the purpose of their journey from Duabia to Central America.
The passengers and crew are sequestered in the small airport, which was completely sealed off by the local police.
French officials said the reception hall at Vatry airport was transformed into a waiting area, where individual beds were provided to passengers with “best possible reception conditions”.
Those onboard were forced to spend a second night on Friday while the authorities continued with the investigation, according to an official with the Marne regional administration.
They initially remained in the flight, surrounded by the police on the tarmac before being transferred into the main hall of the airport.
The Indian Embassy in France on Friday said that the staff had obtained consular access to the passengers.
“French authorities informed us of a plane w/ 303 people, mostly Indian origin, from Dubai to Nicaragua detained on a technical halt at a French airport,” it said on social media X.
“We are investigating the situation and ensuring the well-being of passengers.”
Liliana Bakayoko, a lawyer representing the airline, told France’s BFM television that the company denies any role in eventual human trafficking.
She said a customer, whom she wouldn’t identify, chartered the plane and was responsible for verifying the identity documents of each passenger. The customer communicated the passenger information to the airline 48 hours before the flight, she said.
She added that the airline would take legal action if the prosecutors filed charges.
Meanwhile, India has invited French president Emmanuel Macron to be the chief guest at the country’s Republic Day celebrations next month.
Mr Macron’s office described the invitation as “an extremely strong gesture”.