Grounded Charter Jet Carrying 303 Indian Nationals Freed To Leave France

PARIS (AP) — A charter plane sequestered while carrying 303 Indians to Nicaragua was authorized Sunday to leave the French airport where it has been grounded for four days for a human trafficking investigation. A lawyer for the airline said the plane would take many of the stranded passengers back to India on Monday.

Local authorities were working through Christmas Eve on formalities to allow some passengers to leave the small Vatry Airport in Champagne country, regional prosecutor Annick Browne told The Associated Press. All of the passengers, including a 21-month-old child, had been stuck in the airport terminal since Thursday.

Two passengers were detained as part of a special French investigation into suspected human trafficking by an organized criminal group. Several others requested asylum in France, according to the local administration. Prosecutors said 11 passengers were unaccompanied minors who were put under special administrative care.

The Legend Airlines A340 plane stopped Thursday for refueling in Vatry en route from Fujairah airport in United Arab Emirates for Managua, Nicaragua, and was grounded by police based on an anonymous tip that it could be carrying trafficking victims.

The airport was requisitioned by police for days, and then turned into a makeshift courtroom Sunday as judges, lawyers and translators filled the terminal to carry out emergency hearings to determine whether to keep the Indians sequestered any longer.

The hearings were halted midway because of a dispute over the procedure used to block the Indians in the airport, and a decision on next steps was expected overnight, the prosecutor said Sunday.

The seizure order for the airliner was lifted Sunday morning, a decision that “makes it possible to contemplate the passengers in the waiting area being rerouted,″ according to a statement from the Marne administration.

The French Civil Aviation Authority then set about trying to get the necessary permissions for the plane to take off once again, which should be in place “no later than Monday morning,” according to the prefecture.

Legend Airlines lawyer Liliana Bakayoko told AP that the company hoped the plane could head to Mumbai, India, on Monday ’’with as many passengers as possible.″

She estimated around 280 passengers should be able to leave. The prosecutor and regional administration could not confirm an exact figure.

Local officials, medics and volunteers installed cots and ensured regular meals and showers for those held in the airport. But lawyers at Sunday’s hearings protested authorities’ overall handling of the strange situation.

’’I’m surprised at how things unfolded in the waiting area. People should have been informed of their rights, and clearly that was not the case,″ Francois Procureur, the head of the Châlons-en-Champagne Bar Association, told BFM television. He called the mass, hasty airport hearings ’’unprecedented.″

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 for eight days.

Prosecutors wouldn’t comment on what kind of trafficking was alleged, or whether the passengers’ ultimate destination was the U.S., which has seen a surge in Indians crossing the Mexico-U.S. border this year.

The 15 crew members were questioned and released Saturday, Bakayoko said. She said the airline denied any role in possible human trafficking. A “partner” company that chartered the plane was responsible for verifying identification documents of each passenger and communicated their passport information to the airline 48 hours before the flight, Bakayoko said.

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.

Indian citizens were arrested 41,770 times entering the U.S. illegally from Mexico in the U.S. government’s budget year that ended Sept. 30, more than double from 18,308 the previous year. ___

Morton reported from London. Associated Press journalist Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed to this report.

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