Published December 15, 2013
CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela grounded an Air France flight after being tipped off by French authorities that a terrorist group might be planning to detonate an explosive device in midair.
Venezuelan Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres told state TV late Saturday that more than 60 technicians, bomb experts and a canine team would perform an exhaustive search of the aircraft before the flight could be reprogrammed. Five hours after the flight's 7:25 p.m. scheduled departure it was still unclear what the results of that search were or when they would be announced.
The precise nature of the bomb threat was not known, but Rodriguez Torres said that French authorities passed along information from a credible source that a terrorist group is seeking to place a bomb aboard an unspecified flight from Caracas to Paris, or vice versa.
"We don't want to speculate on the motives because the information comes directly from French intelligence services," Rodriguez Torres said, adding that the information is still being processed.
Stranded passengers said they had cleared immigration and were preparing to board Air France flight 385 when they were told at the last minute that it was being delayed so that the Airbus A340-300 aircraft could be checked. No reason was given.
"We only learned reading Twitter that it could've been a bomb," said Jesus Arandia, a 52-year-old university professor.
About 100 angry passengers surrounded the Air France check-in counter to protest the airline's failure to keep them informed or provide alternative travel arrangements. Around midnight, the airport announced the flight was rescheduled for Sunday afternoon.
"They never told us anything," said Marbella Covino, a 22-year-old student.
Venezuela's intelligence agency declined to comment, saying it isn't authorized to discuss the case.
Security breaches have been detected before at Venezuela's main international airport.
In September, several Venezuelan soldiers stationed at the airport were arrested after French authorities made their biggest cocaine bust ever, seizing 1.4 tons of narcotics that were smuggled in 31 suitcases aboard another Air France flight to Paris.
The U.S. has warned that Middle Eastern terror groups have tried to make inroads in Venezuela, taking advantage of political cover provided by the late President Hugo Chavez's outreach to Iran and Syria, whose governments the U.S. considers state sponsors of terrorism.
Still, even while criticizing the lack of anti-terror cooperation from Venezuela, the State Department in its most-recent assessment of terrorist threats in the Western Hemisphere said that there are no known operational cells currently in the region. Instead, the activity of groups including Hezbollah and al-Qaida appears to be limited to fund-raising and money-laundering, the report said.
AP Writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report.