Six French soldiers were detained at Bata airport in Equatorial Guinea on Thursday morning as they stopped to refuel their helicopter, the French army and local media said.
The six, who were still awaiting take-off clearance, the army said, were detained a day after a Paris court upheld the conviction of the Central African country’s vice president, Teodorin Obiang, for collecting of luxury properties with illegally obtained funds.
“They landed on Wednesday at 13:15 GMT because they ran out of fuel. Then a series of administrative nuisances started,” French army spokesman Pascal Ianni told AFP, adding that negotiations with local officials were underway.
Equatorial Guinea’s state radio TVGE reported Thursday that the helicopter had landed without permission.
The reports also stated that the six soldiers were being interrogated at the central police station in Bata.
“National authorities do not rule out the possibility that this incident could be an espionage operation and provocation on the part of Paris,” TVGE reported.
But Ianni said the landing had nothing to do with espionage.
“This incident is similar to what we’ve covered before. They’re holding the helicopter and its crew,” Ianni said.
A second anonymous French military source added that all necessary authorizations had been obtained for the refueling stop.
“We regularly stop in Bata, but we also regularly have coordination problems with Bata airport,” the source said, adding that “the control tower is not giving permission to land in too much zeal.”
The helicopter, an unarmed Fennec model, made a logistical flight between Douala, the economic center of Cameroon, and Libreville, the capital of Gabon, where the French army is based.