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A plane stuck for days in France for a human trafficking investigation is leaving

Gendarmes patrol by the plane grounded by police based that it could be carrying trafficking victims, at the Vary airport , Monday, Dec. 25, 2023 in Vatry, eastern France.
Christophe Ena
/
AP
Gendarmes patrol by the plane grounded by police based that it could be carrying trafficking victims, at the Vary airport , Monday, Dec. 25, 2023 in Vatry, eastern France.

VATRY, France (AP) — A charter plane grounded in France for a human trafficking investigation is scheduled to leave Monday for India, after an exceptional holiday ordeal that left some 300 Indians en route for Central America blocked inside a rural French airport for four days. A lawyer for the airline says most of the passengers will be aboard.

French authorities are still investigating the aim of the original flight, en route from the United Arab Emirates to Nicaragua, and two passengers have been detained. Prosecutors wouldn't comment on what kind of human trafficking was alleged, or whether the passengers' ultimate destination could have been the U.S., which has seen a surge in Indians crossing the Mexico-U.S. border this year.

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. The passengers include a 21-month-old child and 11 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 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 interpreters filled the terminal to carry out emergency hearings to determine next steps.

The plane received permission Sunday to leave France and was expected to depart Monday, according to an official with the Marne regional administration. A passenger stairwell was in place Monday morning beneath the unmarked plane, which has been waiting on the tarmac since Thursday.

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.

Several passengers have requested asylum in France, according to an official with the Marne regional prefecture.

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.

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

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 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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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The Associated Press