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Diverted flight passenger charged over hoax

If convicted, suspect could face five years in prison

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Zubair Ghias, in an undated photo released by his family

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A man who claimed he was being abducted -- leading to the diversion of a Moroccan jetliner after it left a New York airport -- was charged Friday evening with making false statements to the FBI, a statement from the Justice Department said.

Authorities have determined that Zubair Ghias' claim that he was being abducted was a hoax, said Gail Marcinkiewicz, an FBI spokeswoman.

U.S. Attorney Paula Silsby said in a statement that Ghias, a 27-year-old stockbroker from Chicago, was arrested in Bangor, Maine, where the plane was diverted shortly after it took off from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

He appeared in court Friday evening and was ordered held without bail pending another hearing on Monday.

According to an affidavit in the case, the Transportation Security Administration director at the Bangor International Airport called the FBI Thursday to say that a plane was being diverted to his airport "because of suspicions that a passenger on board had a bomb."

Ghias aroused suspicions and underwent an extra security check at JFK Airport because he bought a one-way ticket to Casablanca, Morocco; paid for it in cash, and did not have any baggage with him, the affidavit said.

The Justice Department statement said that when Ghias was taken off the plane in Bangor and questioned by authorities, he "falsely gave a detailed account of his kidnapping on February 14th in Chicago."

If convicted of the charges against him, Ghias could face five years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine.

Earlier, a government source in Washington told CNN the man had concocted his story to explain in a telephone call to his wife why he was boarding a plane to Morocco. She had reported him missing on Valentine's Day, February 14, and was talking to police in Chicago about his whereabouts at the time she received the call from her husband.

"He left; she wanted to find him," the source told CNN.

"While he was boarding the flight, Mr. Ghias called his residence in Chicago," said FBI spokesman James Osterrieder in Bangor. "Coincidentally, the Chicago Police Department was at the house talking to his wife and relatives."

Ghias told his family "he was forced onto the plane by some Arabic people," Osterrieder said. "He basically said that his family was threatened. And he commenced to tell us that he was abducted sometime on Valentine's Day, actually, and that he had been held ever since in New York City."

Marcinkiewicz said that at least one other passenger was taken off the plane to be interviewed. Given Ghias' claim to have been abducted, Marcinkiewicz said it was logical that passengers sitting near him would be questioned.

In Chicago, a private investigator hired by Ghias' wife to find her husband told reporters that Ghias had been captured by al Qaeda and given a new passport, but the FBI said that was not true.

The private investigator, government sources said, told the news media that Ghias might have been carrying a bomb aboard the plane.

"That did not pan out to be true," Osterrieder said. "There was no bomb threat."

Marcinkiewicz also said the Transportation Security Administration initially ordered the plane to return to Kennedy Airport, but the pilot decided instead to land in Bangor International Airport, which was closer.

The Boeing 767 landed in Maine at 11:16 p.m. ET Thursday with 81 passengers and 10 crew members aboard. It resumed its journey to Casablanca at 3:51 a.m. ET Friday, according to an official at the Bangor airport, and the airline said it landed at Casablanca's Mohammed V International Airport shortly after 3 p.m. (10 a.m. ET).

CNN producer Mitch Walker contributed to this report.


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