Nigerian Charged with Trying to Blow Up Airliner

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab read charges in a hospital where he is being treated for burns

Nico Colombant

U.S. authorities have charged a Nigerian man with trying to blow up a plane on its descent into the city of Detroit on Friday.  The man, who comes from a prominent Nigerian family, was read the charges in a hospital Saturday, where he is being treated for burns. 

U.S. District Judge Paul Borman read the 23-year-old his charges in a room at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was asked if he understood the charges against him, and he answered in English that he did.

Witnesses reported he was in a wheelchair with a blanket over his lap. 

The U.S. government accuses the Nigerian national of bringing an explosive device onto Friday's Northwest Airlines Flight 253 plane from Amsterdam.  A preliminary analysis by federal authorities indicates he used a syringe to detonate a highly explosive substance, identified as PETN.

Passengers have told investigators the man went into the bathroom for 20 minutes before landing, and then when he went to sit down, said he had stomach problems, and pulled a blanket on himself.

Just as the plane was getting ready to land, they heard a pop, smelled smoke and then saw the man on fire.

A Dutch passenger jumped on the Nigerian to subdue him, and blankets were used to put out the fire. 

The House Committee on Homeland Security chairman, Bennie Thompson, said it was a very close call. "We're just fortunate nothing happened. This was a serious situation," he said. Thompson said Congress will look into the matter as soon as possible. "As soon as we reconvene from the holiday recess, we will start looking into the circumstances around the Northwest flight incident."

Nigeria's acting ambassador to the United States, Babagana Wakil, immediately issued a statement, which he read to VOA over the phone. "Expectedly, the embassy is already in contact with relevant U.S. authorities over the incident to facilitate any preliminary investigations to get to the bottom of this unfortunate development. Officers from the embassy have already flown to Michigan to gain consular access to the individual under investigation, and to offer the mission's cooperation to federal and local authorities," he said.

The suspect's family members in Nigeria said they were shocked.  The suspect's father, an accountant and businessman,  was previously a very well known banker in Africa's most populous nation.  Friends and family said Adbulmutallab had studied in Togo and London, and that he had recently made several trips to Yemen. 

Friday, the White House said it believed it was an attempted act of terrorism. U.S. media reports say the suspect told interrogators he had affiliations with al-Qaida.

The charges that were read against him Saturday carry a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.

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