China detains US pilot on ‘suspicion of smuggling weapons’

The FedEx pilot was preparing to board flight to Hong Kong. (Bloomberg pic)

BEIJING: Chinese authorities in the southern city of Guangzhou last week detained a US pilot for FedEx Corp on suspicion of smuggling weapons and ammunition, the foreign ministry said on Friday.

The man, identified by the Wall Street Journal as former US Air Force pilot Todd Hohn, was detained on Sept 12 at the airport after customs discovered 681 air-gun pellets in a box in his luggage as he was preparing to board a flight for Hong Kong, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.

He was later “released from custody, subject to provision of a surety, pending investigation,” Geng told a news conference.

The Journal said Hohn was not being allowed to leave China until the investigation concludes.

Hohn could not be reached for a comment, and calls to the Guangzhou police were not answered.

FedEx, which did not name Hohn, said in a statement it was “working with the appropriate authorities to gain a better understanding of the facts.”

A FedEx spokeswoman declined to give any details when asked if Hohn was being prevented from leaving China.

Hohn’s detention comes at a difficult time in China for FedEx, which has become one of the most high-profile corporate brands to get caught up in US-China trade and other frictions.

The Memphis-based company has been the target of Chinese ire over shipping mistakes involving several packages, including parcels addressed to China’s Huawei Technologies Co, which Washington has put on an export blacklist.

Geng did not name Hohn, but said Guangzhou customs had blocked the pilot from leaving the country “on suspicion of smuggling weapons and ammunition”.

Chinese authorities informed the US consulate in Guangzhou a day after he was detained, Geng said, adding that the case was still under investigation.

A US State Department official said the department was tracking developments.

“We take seriously our responsibility to assist US citizens abroad, and are monitoring the situation,” the official said in an email to Reuters.

The Wall Street Journal first reported the case on Thursday.

Earlier this week, FedEx slashed its fiscal 2020 profit forecast by 18%.

Executives said the US-China trade war is dampening key economies in Europe and Asia and hurting its Express business, which moves parcels and freight via airplane around the globe.

Hong Kong, where the Journal said Hohn lived, has been rocked since June by large, sometimes violent street protests that have presented Beijing with its biggest political challenge in decades.