CORRECTED: Air France returns to Cambodia after 37 years
An inaugural Air France flight landed in Cambodia on Thursday, marking the reopening of a route closed 37 years ago as bombs pounded the capital and the Khmer Rouge prepared to seize power.
The airline, which first started flying to Phnom Penh in 1947 when Cambodia was still a French colony, is the first European carrier to fly to a country that last year welcomed over two million tourists.
The last Air France flight left Phnom Penh in June 1974, just months before the Khmer Rouge closed the borders and launched a radical revolution that plunged the country into one of the worst horrors of the 20th century.
Attending the official ceremony is a royal former Cambodian Air France flight attendant, who worked on one of the last flights to Paris.
Princess Sylvia Sisowath, a cousin of former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk, said she remembers rushing to get passengers onto the plane as bombs were raining down nearby on Khmer Rouge fighters.
"We had to embark quickly because there was shelling around the city, but not on the airport," she told AFP, adding that she was "very happy" to see the airline return to her country.
The Khmer Rouge emptied the cities and abolished money and schools in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.
Up to two million people died from overwork, starvation or execution under the 1975-1979 regime.
Air France CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon said the resumption of flights from Paris to the southeast Asian country was part of the airline's growth strategy, but it was also significant from a historical perspective.
"It is really emotional," Gourgeon told reporters at Phnom Penh International Airport where Air France Flight 274 from Paris was given a red carpet welcome.
As the Airbus A340, which carried some 275 passengers including French Transport Minister Thierry Mariani, taxied on the tarmac on Thursday, it passed under an arch of water created by two fire engines, a traditional welcome for a maiden voyage.
The airline will operate three services a week between Paris-Charles de Gaulle and Phnom Penh, with a brief stopover in Bangkok.
© 2011 AFP