A device placed in the lavatory of an Air France jetliner was part of a diabolical scheme to cause maximum chaos in the air, security sources said on Sunday.
The device, discovered by passenger Balletti Patrice, was a Chinese-made bomb but its timer was defective and the explosive had been removed and the inside stuffed with paper, said the sources.
It appeared intended to cause an accident through sheer terror in the passenger cabin, the sources speculated. And it appeared to have been placed there by either a passenger or a member of the crew because the plane had been searched before departure, said the source.
As a result, six passengers were taken into custody for questioning, the source added.
Passengers were informed of “a suspicious luggage suspected to be a bomb” on board just over three hours into their direct flight from St Louis, Mauritius, to Paris, France. And for the hour it took for the Boeing 777 with 459 passengers and 14 crew on board, to land at the Moi International Airport, Mombasa, it was “like a lifetime of psychological torture”, according to one passenger.
“I am so relieved. It was one hour of intense anxiety and confusion. It felt like a lifetime of psychological torture,” said Mr Benua Lukini, who was travelling with his wife.
Another agitated passenger, who only identified herself as Veronique, said: “We were told by the crew that there was a suspicious bag that could be having a bomb. We began to scamper, with those asleep springing awake. It was chaotic in the plane.”
Another passenger said: “We were told there is a bomb in the aircraft, maybe a fake bomb, we don’t know. We were evacuated using the emergency doors.”
The incident put at risk 473 lives at risk and had the plane crashed, it would have ranked as the worst air disaster of 2015. The passengers were traumatised and required counselling on landing.
“We were to go to Paris and then home in Germany. We were told there was a dangerous object in the plane and it had to land at the nearest and safest airport from Mauritius which happened to be Mombasa,” said a German, who refused to give his name.
Ms Pierre Bollenbach, the president of Condit-Pac Sovitec Company, described the hour in the air as “harrowing”.
“There was a lot of panic as nobody knew what would happen next. Each one was praying that the worst would not happen,” she said.
Another passenger said as he held his baby tightly to his chest: “I do not know what happened. We panicked when we were told there is a possible bomb in the plane. It was diverted and we were evacuated using emergency slide doors. We are very, very tired.’’
Mr Ballet, who is believed to have a security background, discovered the device three hours and 20 minutes into the flight from Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport.
The brave pilot, his crew and 459 scared passengers had to fly an hour to Mombasa, hoping every second that they would not be incinerated in the air.
A security source in Mombasa said the airline and the authorities in Mauritius assured them that the plane had been thoroughly checked before it left St Louis.
Chances are that the device was placed by someone on board, either a passenger or crew member, said the source.
After the pilot made the distress call, air traffic control at the Mombasa airport cleared the plane to land and put in motion a security operation for evacuation.
“We were alerted by the emergency Centre of the diverted Air France flight to Mombasa,’’ said Mr Abdirahman Idriss, Governor Hassan Joho’s senior adviser.
“The county mobilised all ambulances, fire engines and inspectorate officers to the airport to support a possible evacuation while all the county’s hospital’s were alerted to be on standby,” added Major (Rtd) Idriss.
He was among the first people to arrive at the airport shortly after midnight, accompanied by the director of the county’s inspectorate department, Mr Charles Changawa. Mombasa County Commissioner Nelson Marwa, who heads the security committee, and the regional DCI boss.
They led their teams to the airport at about the same time and held lengthy meetings into the early morning when Interior Cabinet Secretary Major General (Rtd) Joseph Nkaissery and PS Monica Juma arrived from Nairobi.
French Consul in Mombasa Mohamed Ramazan was also at the airport before the plane landed and had a hectic time calming down and reassuring the distraught passengers. He refused to speak to journalists.
On arrival, the passengers were held in the terminal building until morning when they were screened and bused to Whitesands Resort, Travellers, Continental Resort and other hotels in North Coast. The passengers’ passports and credit cards were confiscated.
Major (Rtd) Nkaissery and Dr Juma visited the hotels to further reassure the passengers. “We are here to allay fears. Our team is on high alert 24-hours,” he told journalists. “It is an international issue.
We are getting in touch with the Mauritius people to establish whether these passengers were searched,” the minister said, adding that they received a distress call from the Mauritius security organs and “we swiftly moved on the section of the aircraft (where the gadget was) and safely evacuated the passengers”.
The minister emphasised that all Kenyan airports are secure.
“A few” passengers had been taken for questioning, he added, but did not give the actual number. However, independent sources said six of them were being questioned.
The minister said Kenyan investigators were working with France and Mauritius to determine whether the gadget found in the plane was a real bomb. The airport was closed for a time and passengers sent back to their hotels.
A Kenyan, Mr Zuberi Issa, who was flying to Manchester in the UK, was among those affected and had to return home. “Our plans have been disrupted and we have to go back and wait until the situation is back to normal to fly out”, he said.
But the hitch was a blessing for others, especially taxi-drivers, who made booming business ferrying the passengers to hotels.
“For us, this problem has come as a blessing. We now have a lot of work ferrying stranded passengers to their hotels,” said Mr Tom Makuku, a driver.
Reported by Njeri Rugene, Winnie Atieno and Daniel Nyassy