July 17, 2002
2315 IST

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Top Malayalam actress held, let off in New York

George Joseph in New York

South Indian actress Samyuktha Varma and five others travelling with her were detained for questioning at New York's LaGuardia Airport on suspicion of being terrorists.

The group, in the United States for entertainment programmes organised by Malayali associations, were flying Dallas-Chicago-New York City on July 16 when a co-passenger reported their 'suspicious behaviour'.

The 'suspicious behaviour', according to their hosts in New York, amounted to miming, passing notes, changing seats, and talking.

Fifteen minutes before landing, a lady passenger notified a flight attendant, who informed the pilot. Aviation authorities were alerted. And five minutes later, the plane, Flight 204, was escorted to LaGuardia by two air force F-16s, where it landed at 2305 EDT, North American Aerospace Defence Command spokesman Major Barry Venable said. The flight had left Dallas at 1300 that day.

Varma and her companions -- her father, mother, younger sister, singer Biju Narayanan and comedian Jayaraj Warrier -- were questioned and, after their hosts had vouched for them, released at around 0400 EDT on Wednesday.

Varma is scheduled to perform at Show 2002 on July 20 at the Colden Centre in Queens College, City University of New York, Flushing, Queens.

From July 3 to 7, she had performed at the 10th biennial convention of the Federation of Kerala Associations in North America in Chicago.

Organiser Jacob Roy said his partner for the show, C Vijayan, was at the airport waiting for the troupe. When they did not come out after the plane landed, he went inside and found them surrounded by security personnel.

"After landing there was an announcement asking them to disembark first," Jacob said. "They thought it was some VIP treatment."

He said the trouble started when Warrier, a comedian, started miming. A lady passenger misunderstood it to be some sign language and became suspicious.

At the airport, Varma and her group were questioned by New York Port Authority officials. Later, Jacob said, they were shifted to another office, where a joint task force of the New York police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation questioned them individually.

Jacob said the organisers produced the flyers, tickets and advertisements of Show 2002 before the officials were convinced.

The star and the others were not available for comments. "They are all right," Jacob said. "Just shaken."

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey manages the region's airports. Since the September 11 attacks, the NAADC has scrambled or diverted fighter jets about 400 times to help civilian aircraft.

Port Authority spokesman Alan Hicks said the travellers were not arrested.

Earlier, Canadian officials had detained Tamil film superstar Kamal Haasan for questioning.

He wasn't the only victim of the post-September 11 fear psychosis either. Before him, Hindi film star Aamir Khan was interrogated for an hour and even strip-searched at Chicago.

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