France investigates case of plane with 300 passengers to Nicaragua for human trafficking

PARIS — About 300 Indian citizens traveling to Central America They were held at a French airport for a third day Saturday due to an investigation into possible human trafficking, authorities said.

Among the passengers are “13 unaccompanied minors, as well as accompanied minors,” indicated the civil protection of the Marne Department, where Vatry airport is located, about 150 km east of Paris.

The age of the minors ranges “from a 21-month-old baby to a 17-year-old teenager,” the same source specified.

A source close to the investigations indicated that the passengers, probably Indian workers in the Emirates, were looking to go to a Central American country to try from there to head north to enter the United States or Canada irregularly.

Crew members released

The 15 crew members of the leased Legend Airlines flight, traveling from the United Arab Emirates to Nicaragua, were questioned and released, according to a lawyer for the small Romania-based airline. The employees were very affected by what happened, she added.

The flight stopped Thursday to refuel at Vatry airport in Champagne province and was detained by French police following an anonymous tip that the plane could be carrying victims of human trafficking, according to the Paris prosecutor’s office. Two people were detained and special investigators were questioning the other passengers, he added.

The unusual and sudden investigation disrupted travel over the holiday weekend after police cordoned off the airport and all flights to and from the regional airport were cancelled, according to the Marne regional government. Some were redirected. The airfield is mainly used for charter and freight flights.

Police detained the passengers at the airport, where they spent two nights in portable cots while the investigation continued, according to the Marne government. They had initially remained on the A340 plane surrounded by police on the tarmac, but were later moved to the main lobby of the building to sleep.

The Indian embassy in France wrote in X that its staff had obtained consular access to the passengers. “We are investigating the situation and ensuring the well-being of the passengers,” she said.

Several agencies investigate

Agents from a French specialized unit against organized crime, border police and aviation gendarmes were working on the case.

Legend Airlines lawyer Liliana Bakayoko said the company denied having any role in possible human trafficking, and hailed as “good news for the airline” that the crew had been released after being questioned.

A “partner” company that chartered the flight was responsible for verifying each passenger’s identity documents and communicated the passengers’ passport information to the airline 48 hours before the flight, Bakayoko said.

The client had booked several flights on Legend Airlines from Dubai to Nicaragua and a few routes had already been completed without incident, he said. He declined to identify the company, saying only that it was not a European company.

The crew, which is of several nationalities, “is quite traumatized,” he said. “They wrote me messages that they want to see their families for Christmas.”

The US government has designated Nicaragua as one of several countries that it considers do not meet minimum standards to combat human trafficking.

FOUNTAIN: With information from AP and AFP