India gets consular access after flight carrying mostly Indians detained in France

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India’s embassy in France has received consular access to its citizens after a Nicaragua-bound flight carrying 303 people, mostly Indians, was detained by French authorities during “a technical halt” at an airport near Paris over suspected “human trafficking”. The plane that took off from the United Arab Emirates carrying 303 Indian passengers was grounded in France on Thursday over suspected “human trafficking”, French authorities were quoted as saying by the local media on Friday.

“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,” the Indian mission said in a post on ‘X’. “The embassy team has reached & obtained consular access. We are investigating the situation, also ensuring the wellbeing of passengers,” it said. According to a ‘Le Monde’ newspaper report, the national anti-organised crime unit JUNALCO has taken over the investigation.

Special investigators are questioning all those aboard and two people are in custody pending further examination, the Paris prosecutor’s office said in a statement. The prefecture in the northeastern department of Marne said the A340, operated by Romanian company Legend Airlines, “remained grounded on the tarmac at Vatry airport following its landing” on Thursday. The Vatry airport, located 150 kilometres east of Paris, serves mostly budget airlines.

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The newspaper report says the prefecture said the plane had been due to refuel and was carrying 303 Indian nationals who had probably been working in the UAE. According to the reports, the travel may have been planned by the Indian passengers to reach Central America from where they can attempt to enter the United States or Canada illegally. After landing in France, the passengers were first kept on the aircraft, but then let out and given individual beds in the terminal building. The entire airport was cordoned off by police.

The prosecutor’s office said an anonymous tip signalled that the flight was carrying people who could be victims of human trafficking. Passengers were eventually transferred into the main hall of the small Vatry airport, where cots were set up for them to stay overnight on Thursday, the administration for the Marne region told the newspaper. Investigators from a specialised French organised crime unit, border police and aviation gendarmes are working on the case. The aircraft is owned by Romanian charter company Legend Airlines. A lawyer for the firm, Liliana Bakayoko, denied any involvement in the trafficking.

She told French news channel BFMTV that the firm was ready to cooperate with the French authorities and hoped the plane could be on its way in the next couple of days. Legend Airlines “intervenes as a carrier”, she said, adding that “the flight was carried out for “a client of the company.” According to the lawyer, the airline verified “the conformity of the documents presented by the client, who must demonstrate that these people have the right to go to Nicaragua, and have valid passports.” “The company cannot check the criminal records of the people transported,” said Bakayoko.

“303 people is not a number that raises alarm. They are not locked in a truck without ventilation and food,” she said. The airline is “unhappy,” she said. “It is a significant economic loss, but their image also suffers,” she said. She said Legend Airlines “is ready to cooperate as far as possible with the French authorities”. “We hope that within one or two days maximum the plane will be able to leave,” said the lawyer. Legend Air has a small fleet of four aircraft, according to the Flightradar website.

French border police can initially hold a foreign national for up to four days if they land in France and are prevented from travelling on to their intended destination. French law allows for that period to be extended to eight days if a judge approves it, then another eight days in exceptional circumstances, up to a maximum of 26 days. Human trafficking carries a potential sentence of up to 20 years in France.