A charter plane that was grounded at an airport in France over suspected human trafficking for the past four days arrived in Mumbai early Tuesday with 276 Indians on board.
The Airbus A340 was bound for Nicaragua from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with 303 passengers, most of them Indians, when it stopped in France for refueling on Thursday.
The plane was grounded by French authorities at Vatry, 150 km east of Paris, after they received an anonymous tip that some passengers might be “victims of human trafficking.”
The aircraft is operated by Legend Airlines, a Romanian charter airline with a fleet of four planes.
“Thank French Gov and Vatry Airport for quick resolution of the situation enabling Indian passengers to return home & hospitality. Also for working closely with embassy team, present throughout at the site to ensure welfare and smooth & safe return. Thank agencies in India, too,” the Indian embassy in France posted on X.
The BBC reported that most onboard were Indian citizens working in the UAE. Authorities suspected that the passengers might have been traveling to Nicaragua before attempting to enter the US or Canada.
As part of the probe by the Paris prosecutor’s office, four French judges questioned the detained passengers, including 11 unaccompanied minors. Citing local media, Press Trust of India reported that the passengers spoke Hindi and Tamil.
The judges canceled the hearings of the passengers due to irregularities in the procedure and authorized the plane to leave.
French authorities said the plane had 276 passengers on board when it took off for Mumbai, as 25 people, including two minors, had sought to apply for asylum and were still on French soil.
Two other passengers were released and placed on “assisted witness status”, a French news channel said.
Investigators were “verifying” whether their role “may have been different than the others in this transport, and under what conditions and with what objectives,” France24 channel reported.
It was not immediately clear why the aircraft was cleared for take-off or why the flight went to Mumbai instead of resuming its journey to Nicaragua.
Nicaragua has emerged as a favored route for those seeking entry into the US, attracting a notable number of asylum seekers.
US Customs and Border Patrol data show a 52% increase in the number of Indian nationals attempting unauthorized entry into the US, totaling 96,917 in 2023. Of these, 41,770 individuals tried to cross into the US through the Mexican land border.
In October, El Salvador began slapping a $1,130 fee on travelers from dozens of countries connecting through the nation’s main airport amid US pressure to help control migration flows to its southern border.
Citizens of 57 countries, including India, have had to pay the fee, El Salvador’s aviation authority said.
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