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'Detained' SA pilots return from Malawi

Photographs of the South African aircraft with registration number ZS-SDS circulated on social media amid allegations that the crew and passengers had been detained for election rigging. Pic: Supplied.

The two South African pilots detained in Malawi on Saturday amid allegations of election rigging have returned home. This according to an executive from Fair Aviation, the Johannesburg-based company that owns the King Air twin-turbo aircraft. The company’s CEO, Fred Brons, confirmed to that the aircraft was refused take-off clearance at Kamuzu International Airport in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, just days before the country’s national election.

According to Brons, the aircraft was chartered by ExecuJet to fly Saulos Chilima, Malawi’s vice president and opposition contender in the May 21 elections. Chilima is representing the United Transformation Movement (UTM), a political party formed after he fell out of grace with incumbent President Peter Mutharika.

Brons says the pilots were not charged with anything, and that the plane was searched but that no evidence of wrongdoing was found. “It was not really and arrest,” he told, but rather an exercise “to embarrass the crew by handcuffing them and walking them through the airport terminal.” He says authorities interrogated the crew members at the airport before booking them into a commercial hotel.

The plane, which arrived in the country on Thursday from South Africa, flew to to Likoma Island and the northern city of Mzuzu for Chilima's campaign rally on Friday before returning to Malawi's capital. The aircraft and crew were meant to return to Johannesburg on Saturday when Malawian authorities refused them clearance to leave.

In an apparent reference to the impounded plane, President Peter Mutharika on Saturday told a rally in Malawi's commercial capital of Blantyre that he was aware of some politicians plotting to rig the elections.

According to a statement issued by the Malawian Police Service the following day, the matter was being investigated “in the interest of national security” due to the “suspicious activities of its crew members and passengers”.

The Malawi Police Service issued a statement saying that the plane and its passengers and crew were being investigated "in the interest of national security'. Pic: Malawi Police Service

Despite the serious allegations surrounding the aircraft and its passengers and crew, Fair Aviation CEO Fred Brons says authorities were unable to find evidence of election interference - or anything else. “The pilots are are normal, professional commercial pilots and there was nothing found wrong on their movements as there was nothing wrong,” said Brons.

“They flew what they were told, according to the correct and approved paperwork,” he said. For this reason, he says, they had to be released. He confirmed that both pilots and the aircraft are back in South Africa.

The Malawian President has, for some time, made allegations that his vice is plotting to steal the vote - allegations denied by Chilima. The country went to the polls on Tuesday, May 21, with the electoral commission being given eight days to tally the votes and announce the results.

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