Delhi airport officials were racked by a rash of security scares on Wednesday, as two Kathmandu-bound flights were evacuated minutes before takeoff following a bomb threat while authorities were scouring the skies following reports of a “suspicious” balloon hovering over the area.
Over 250 passengers on Air India flight AI-215 that was to leave at 1.15pm and Jet Airways flight 9W260 scheduled to depart at 1.25pm were moved out after three anonymous phone calls warned police that there were bombs on the planes.
The incident comes on the heels of the same Jet Airways flight being delayed on Saturday by six hours following a bomb threat call that turned out to be a hoax.
While the aircraft were being searched on Wednesday, a fourth call was received, giving details of baggage containing “liquid explosives”, which led to further scrutiny of luggage and holdups.
“We would have loaded the baggage, but after this call, bags were taken to the terminal for further scanning,” said a senior officer of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) that’s responsible for keeping safe all commercial airports in the country.
According to a senior police official, a caller identifying himself as Hafiz Azad from Istanbul in Turkey said two bombs in laptops had been planted on the two flights. The three calls came within 10 minutes, the first at 1.05pm and the third at 1.15pm.
“Around 3:30 pm, another call was received where the caller said liquid explosives were planted in two bags on the two flights,” a CISF officer said.
The Air India flight finally took off at 8.30pm and the Jet Airways flight an hour later.
Budget carrier AirAsia India’s flight to Goa from Bengaluru with about 145 passengers on board was also delayed following a similar bomb scare.
“In-flight cabin crew spotted the bomb threat in the aircraft after landing,” an airline spokesperson said, adding that a search revealed nothing and the aircraft was allowed to resume normal operations.
Last week, a Mumbai-bound GoAir flight carrying more than 150 people from Bhubaneswar made an emergency stopover at Nagpur an hour into the journey following an anonymous tip about a bomb on board. However, no suspicious article was found during a security check.
While authorities at Delhi airport were examining the two planes, an alert was sounded when officials received reports of a big balloon being spotted.
“At about 3.15pm today, the patrol guards at the air force station located on Gurgaon-Faridabad Road reported sighting an unidentified balloon, red and white in colour, about 1 metre in diameter, flying between 1-1.5km high, and flying towards Aya Nagar in Delhi,” said Gurgaon’s police commissioner Navdeep Singh Virk. “Upon this, the Delhi and Faridabad police control rooms were alerted by Gurgaon police control room. No balloon has been recovered as yet. Further inquiries are in progress.”
According to sources, the balloon may belong to the Met department with instruments to provide weather updates but authorities are yet to confirm this.
The reports sparked concerns on a day top government sources said a US-made balloon shot down by an Indian Air Force fighter jet in Rajasthan on Republic Day had come from Pakistan and may have been an attempt to test India’s defences and response time.
The IAF scrambled a Sukhoi-30 warplane and deployed armed Mi-17 helicopters after radars picked up an “unidentified balloon-shaped object” at a height of 25,000 feet between 10.30 am and 11 am on Tuesday when the ceremonial parade was in progress in New Delhi.
The rounds were said to be fired from the fighter’s 30mm GSh-301 auto cannon.
“Our radars picked up a shiny flying object entering Indian airspace. A fighter jet was quickly scrambled which intercepted it and shot it down,” defence minister Manohar Parrikar said, refusing to divulge more details.
Interestingly, a balloon comes under the definition of an aircraft under Section 2(1) of the Aircraft Act, 1934. The definition covers kites, too.
The sources said the balloon, with a diameter of three metres, had a “Happy Birthday” message printed on it. The defence ministry is likely to take up the matter with the ministry of external affairs.
Barmer police seized some debris on Wednesday from two villages which would be handed over to the IAF to ascertain if the bits are from the downed balloon.