A plane carrying hundreds of Indian citizens that was grounded in France for a human trafficking investigation has landed in India.
Some 300 passengers spent four days blocked inside a rural French airport after a tip-off that the passengers may be the victims of people smugglers.
The Legend Airlines A340 plane was travelling from Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates to Managua, Nicaragua and stopped in Vatry in the Champagne region to refuel.
Following the tip-off, the French airport was taken over by police for days, and then turned into a makeshift courtroom on Sunday as judges, lawyers and interpreters filled the terminal to carry out emergency hearings to determine next steps.
French authorities worked through Christmas Eve and Christmas morning to allow the 303 passengers to leave the airfield, regional prosecutor Annick Browne told The Associated Press news agency.
276 of the original passengers have landed at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport in Mumbai, while 25 others requested asylum in France, the authorities say.
Those who remained were transferred to a special zone in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport for asylum seekers, it said.
The passengers grounded in France included a 21-month-old child and several unaccompanied minors.
Two passengers were initially detained as part of a human trafficking investigation but were released yesterday after appearing before a judge, the Paris prosecutor’s office said.
The judge named them as ”assisted witnesses” to the case, a special status under French law that allows time for further investigation and could lead to eventual charges or to the case being dropped.
French authorities are working to determine the aim of the original flight, and have opened a judicial inquiry into activities by an organised criminal group helping foreigners enter or stay in a country illegally, the prosecutor’s office said.
Prosecutors haven’t commented on the nature of the human trafficking allegations or whether the passengers’ ultimate destination could have been the US, which has seen a surge in Indians crossing the Mexico-US border this year.
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 to eight days.
Some lawyers at Sunday’s hearings protested French authorities’ handling of the situation and the passengers’ rights, suggesting that police and prosecutors overreacted to the anonymous tip.
The Indian Embassy posted its thanks on X to French officials for ensuring that the Indian citizens could return home.
Legend Airlines lawyer Liliana 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.
The US government has deemed Nicaragua as failing to meet minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking.
Written by: Newsroom