Plane grounded for a human trafficking investigation leaves for India

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Police officers stand near a rescue vehicle outside the Vatry airport, eastern France, Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023, in Vatry, eastern France. About 300 Indian citizens heading to Central America were sequestered in a French airport for a third day Saturday because of an investigation into suspected human trafficking, authorities said. The 15 crew members of the Legend Airlines charter flight en route from United Arab Emirates to Nicaragua were questioned and released, according to a lawyer for the small Romania-based airline.

Christophe Ena | AP Photo

A charter plane grounded in France for a human trafficking investigation departed on Monday for India, after an exceptional holiday ordeal that left about 300 Indians en route to Central America blocked inside a rural French airport for four days.

Associated Press reporters outside the Vatry Airport in Champagne country saw the unmarked Legend Airlines A340 take off after the crew and about 200 other people boarded the plane. It wasn’t immediately clear what would happen with those who didn’t board the plane.

The passengers grounded in France included a 21-month-old child and 11 unaccompanied minors who were put under special administrative care. Several passengers have requested asylum in France, according to an official with the Marne regional prefecture.

Two passengers were detained and are appearing before a judge Monday to face possible charges including involvement in an organized criminal group helping foreigners enter or stay in a country illegally, the Paris prosecutor’s office said.

It did not specify whether human trafficking — which the U.N. defines as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit” — is still suspected, as prosecutors initially said.

French authorities are still investigating the aim of the original flight. The Legend Airlines A340 plane stopped Thursday for refueling in Vatry en route from Fujairah airport in the United Arab Emirates for Managua, Nicaragua, and was grounded by police based on an anonymous tip that it could be carrying human trafficking victims.

Prosecutors wouldn’t comment on whether the passengers’ ultimate destination could have been the U.S., which has seen a surge in Indians crossing the Mexico-U.S. border this year.

The airport was requisitioned by police for days, and then turned into a makeshift courtroom Sunday as judges, lawyers and interpreters filled the terminal to carry out emergency hearings to determine the next steps.

Lawyers at Sunday’s hearings protested authorities’ overall handling of the situation and the passengers’ rights.

French authorities worked through Christmas Eve and Christmas morning on formalities to allow passengers to leave France, regional prosecutor Annick Browne told The Associated Press.

Legend Airlines lawyer Liliana Bakayoko said that it received approval from French authorities to transport 301 of the 303 passengers on a direct flight Monday to Mumbai, but that the final figure is expected to be lower.

Bakayoko said some other passengers don’t want to go to India, because they paid for a tourism trip to Nicaragua. The airline has denied any role in possible human trafficking.

Foreigners can be held up to four days in a transit zone for police investigations in France, after which a special judge must rule on whether to extend that to eight days. Local officials, medics and volunteers installed cots and ensured regular meals and showers for those held in the Vatry airport.

The U.S. government has designated Nicaragua as one of several countries deemed as failing to meet minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking. Nicaragua has also been used as a migratory springboard for people fleeing poverty or conflict because of relaxed or visa-free entry requirements for some countries. Sometimes charter flights are used for the journey.


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