Over 30 people working at Geneva’s international airport have had their runway access passes withdrawn amid tighter security concerns, according to the airport and media reports.
Swiss public radio, SRF, reported on Monday that several airport staff members who turned up for work on December 23 discovered that their security passes giving runway access had been revoked. Their employer referred their cases to the police and the French intelligence services, it added.
Airport spokesman Bertrand Staempfli told AFP on January 9 that the police had asked to withdraw the badges of some employees of certain companies with branches at the airport, confirming earlier reports in the Le Temps and Tribune de Genève daily newspapers.
The reports said over 30 people had their passes withdrawn — a number that Staempfli refused to confirm.
Pierre Maudet, the head of Geneva’s security ministry, told RTS publc television on Monday there were 'tangible elements' justifying the withdrawals. But he refused to give any details.
But three weeks on, it remains unclear exactly why the airport took the decision. Several angry workers have contacted lawyers and union representatives to seek clarification and to fight their cases.
“Even those concerned haven’t been able to find out why,” lawyer Pierre Bayenet, who is representing five staff, told SRF.
Most of those affected are male baggage handlers, who mainly live in France.
"The only identifiable common feature of all those concerned is that they are Muslims. They are respectable and without a criminal record," he added.
The lawyer said those concerned had no opportunity to defend themselves and were not consulted prior to the withdrawals. He believes the authorities acted hastily out of fear.
The move follows the discovery in early December that French security services had files on two former baggage handlers at the airport, who were French citizens believed to have been radicalised.
Staempfli stressed that the pair were no longer working at the airport when the French security services began monitoring them.
In December, Maudet announced tighter checks on airport staff. He also said tarmac access passes would have to be renewed every two years instead of every five, the practice at present.
Maudet told RTS on Monday that the airport remained a potential target, as several individual cases of radicalisation had been observed in the region.
Geneva was on a heightened security alert for 18 days at the end of December, following intelligence about a specific threat in the region. On December 10, Geneva police announced a manhunt for potential Islamic State group sympathisers and stepped up security at key locations, including the airport, amid reports that US intelligence had identified a jihadist cell in the area. The terror alert level was lowered again on December 28 after consultations with federal authorities.
While searching for suspects, Geneva police arrested two Syrians after finding traces of explosives in their car, although no connection between the various strands of the investigation had been established, prosecutors said.