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Air France groundings reportedly a mistake

Air France's grounding of three transatlantic flights over Christmas was a mistake, based on FBI information that in one case confused a child's name with a suspected terrorist, the Wall Street Journal Europe said.
Image: Air France terminal in Paris on Dec. 25
People walk past Air France planes parked at Roissy airport, north of Paris, Christmas day.Michel Spingler / AP file
/ Source: Reuters

Air France's grounding of three transatlantic flights over Christmas was a mistake, based on FBI information that in one case confused a child's name with a suspected terrorist, the Wall Street Journal Europe said on Friday.

Citing French officials, the newspaper said the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation gave French police on December 22 a list of six suspects' names and information indicating militants linked to al-Qaida were planning to hijack an Air France jet.

French officials said that when French agents detained the passengers on the Paris-Los Angeles flights with names matching those on the list, Air France found the name matching that of the head of a Tunisian-based terror group was a child.

Another "terrorist" was a Welsh insurance agent while a third was an elderly Chinese woman who once ran a restaurant in Paris, the newspaper said. The other three on the list were French citizens.

A spokeswoman at the French Interior Ministry said only: "Some names were checked and they did not correspond to the people."

French officials cited in the newspaper said questioning in front of U.S. Transportation Security Administration officials revealed no sinister plots.

On December 24, Air France cancelled six flights between Paris and Los Angeles on December 24 and 25 at the request of the French government, which had received information from the United States of a "credible threat" to the carrier.

Asked about the newspaper report, a source close to French investigating judges handling terror cases told Reuters it could not be true, because U.S. terrorism investigators had never given French authorities passenger names, only flight numbers.

"This story cannot be true. At no time did the United States give us names. We never had the names of passengers. They just gave us the numbers of the flights they believed were under threat," he said.

The U.S. government raised its security alert to the second highest level, code orange, before Christmas, and imposed temporary flight restrictions over New Year over New York, Las Vegas and other U.S. cities that might be terror targets.

U.S. and French officials on Thursday and Friday confirmed that U.S. F-16 fighter jets were escorting some Air France flights over U.S. air space over the New Year period for fear attackers might try to crash them into American targets.

"We are in a state of maximum security in Parisian and French airports for flights to the United States," French State Secretary for Transport Dominique Bussereau told French radio on Friday.