About 300 Indian travelers are sequestered in a French airport in a human trafficking probe

December 23, 2023
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VATRY, France — About 300 Indian citizens heading to Central America were sequestered in a French airport for a third day Saturday after a dramatic police operation prompted by a tip that those aboard might be victims of human trafficking, authorities said.

Those aboard included children and families. The local civil protection agency told regional broadcaster France-3 that the youngest passenger is a toddler of 21 months, and that among the children are 13 unaccompanied minors.

Local authorities hung white tarps across the soaring bay windows of the small Vatry Airport in Champagne country to ensure privacy for the passengers inside. An unmarked plane near the terminal appeared to be the aircraft grounded since Thursday. Other flights were canceled or rerouted as the airport was transformed into the hub of a vast trafficking investigation.

The 15 crew members of the Legend Airlines charter flight — en route from Fujairah airport in the United Arab Emirates to Managua, Nicaragua — were questioned and released, according to a lawyer for the Romania-based airline. She said they are deeply shaken by what happened.

A surreal holiday weekend scene has been unfolding in the Vatry Airport since Thursday. The flight stopped for refueling, and was grounded by French police based on an anonymous tip that it could be carrying victims of human trafficking, the Paris prosecutor’s office said. It said two people have been detained and special investigators are questioning the other passengers.

The unusual and sudden probe disrupted air travel as police cordoned off the airport and flights in and out of the regional airport were disrupted, according to the administration for the Marne region. The airfield is used primarily for charter and cargo flights.

Police sequestered the passengers in the airport, where they have spent two nights on camp beds while the investigation continues, according to an official with the Marne administration. The official said the passengers initially remained in the A340 plane, surrounded by police on the tarmac, but were then transferred into the main hall of the airport to sleep.

Emergency workers, Red Cross workers, a doctor and local volunteers are on the scene to look after the needs of the passengers, including regular meals and medical care and access to toilets and showers, the administration said in a statement Saturday. A special section of the terminal has been equipped for families.

Indian consular representatives are visiting regularly, the administration said. The Indian Embassy in France posted on X that embassy staff had obtained consular access to the passengers. “We are investigating the situation and ensuring the wellbeing of passengers,” it said.

Legend Airlines lawyer Liliana Bakayoko said the company denies any role in possible human trafficking, and welcomed the news that the plane’s crew had been released after questioning as “good news for the airline.’’

A “partner” company that chartered the plane was responsible for verifying the identity documents of each passenger, and communicated the passengers’ passport information to the airline 48 hours before the flight, Bakayoko told The Associated Press.

The customer had chartered multiple flights on Legend Airlines from Dubai to Nicaragua, and a few other flights have already made the journey without incident, she said. She would not identify the customer, saying only that it is not a European company.

The crew members, who are of multiple nationalities, “are rather traumatized,” she said. “They wrote me messages that they want to see their families for Christmas.”

The U.S. government has designated Nicaragua as one of several countries deemed as failing to meet minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking.



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