Plane stuck for days in France for human trafficking investigation leaves for India

Passengers include a 21-month-old child and 11 unaccompanied minors who were put under special administrative care

By AP

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Published: Mon 25 Dec 2023, 5:58 PM

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.

The passengers include a 21-month-old child and 11 unaccompanied minors who were put under special administrative care. Several passengers requested asylum in France.

Two passengers were detained and are appearing before a judge Monday to face possible charges.

Prosecutors wouldn’t comment on whether the passengers’ ultimate destination could have been the US, which has seen a surge in Indians crossing the Mexico-US 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 next steps.

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

The plane received permission Sunday to leave France and was expected to depart Monday, according to an official with the Marne regional administration. French authorities worked through Christmas Eve and Christmas morning on formalities to allow passengers to leave the Vatry airfield in Champagne country, regional prosecutor Annick Browne told The Associated Press.

Legend Airlines lawyer Liliana Bakayoko said 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 for eight days. Local officials, medics and volunteers installed cots and ensured regular meals and showers for those held in the Vatry airport.

The US 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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