NAIROBI (AFP, Reuters) - A suspicious object made of cardboard and a kitchen timer sparked a bomb scare on an Air France flight on Sunday (Dec 20), forcing it to make an emergency landing in Kenya.
A passenger alerted crew members to the item found inside a toilet cubicle on board the Boeing 777, which was carrying 459 passengers and 14 crew members from Mauritius to Paris.
“After analysis it has been indicated that (the bomb scare) was a false alarm,” Air France chief executive Frederic Gagey told a press conference in Paris. “All the information we have at this stage shows that the object was not capable of causing an explosion that would damage the plane but was rather a mixture of cardboard, pieces of paper as well as a timer,” he said.
He said the “deduction” was that the item had been placed in a toilet cupboard by one of the passengers.
France is on high alert after jihadist attacks in Paris in November left 130 people dead, and is one of many countries taking extra security precautions.
The Guardian reported that police sources said four Air France employees were arrested on Monday as part of the investigation into the violent scenes which saw one of the struggling airline’s executives have his shirt ripped off and scale a fence to escape an angry mob.
Airlines are especially jittery after Islamic State jihadists who claimed the Paris attacks also said they were responsible for downing a Russian jet in Egypt in October after smuggling a bomb onto the plane, killing all 224 people on board.
Gagey said there had been three bomb scares on Air France planes in the United States since the attacks. Flight AF 463 left the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius at 9.00 pm (1.00am Singapore time on Sunday) on Saturday and had been due to arrive in Paris Charles de Gaulle at 5.50 am Sunday (12.50pm Singapore time on Sunday).
But it made an emergency landing at Moi International Airport in Kenya’s southern port city of Mombasa at 12.37 am (5.37am Singapore time) “after a device suspected to be a bomb was discovered in the lavatory,” police spokesman Charles Owino said.
“An emergency was prepared and it landed safely and all passengers evacuated.”
When the plane landed, passenger John Stephen said crew members helped safely evacuate people using emergency slides.
“We felt the crew member was pretty tense, something was probably wrong at that time. When the plane stopped, he told us to run away to take the slide, to run away from the plane,” Stephen told reporters. “We don’t know anything more about this bomb or not, but something that looked like a bomb was in the toilet.”
Navy and police bomb experts were called in to determine if there were any explosives aboard the plane.
Air France’s chief executive Gagey said the object was found “in a small cupboard behind the mirror” in the toilet. He said the bits of cardboard and paper and what “appeared to be a kitchen timer” were not items normally found on board.
Gagey said crew members had also indicated that in their routine check of the plane before the flight the cupboard had been empty. He said Air France was waiting to hear from Kenyan authorities but that “we will request an investigation to clarify” what had happened.
Kenyan Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery told reporters at Mombasa’s Moi International Airport on Sunday that the authorities were in touch with Mauritius to find out how passengers had been screened.
Air France said in a statement it had “immediately decided to reinforce the security measures in Mauritius” after the incident, which follows three bomb alerts in the United States in the last few weeks.
Airports of Mauritius, the operator of the airport in Plaine Magnien, said Deputy Prime Minister Xavier-Luc Duval, would hold a meeting on Monday morning with government agencies involved in security to discuss measures taken following the incident.
“As precautionary measures, Mauritian authorities have tightened security procedures at the airport,” Airports of Mauritius added in a statement.
Kenya’s Airports Authority said on its Twitter account that normal operations at the Mombasa airport had resumed. Gagey said arrangements were being made to fly the passengers and crew back to Paris, adding that they would return late on Sunday or early Monday.