PHOENIX (Reuters) - Three Eritrean nationals pleaded not guilty on Friday to trying to sneak a fake bomb past a screening area at a Phoenix airport in what the FBI described as a possible test of security.
The trio, immigrants from the Horn of Africa nation, were charged with taking a package that simulated the appearance of an explosive device through Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on August 5.
The court entered pleas of not guilty for Luwiza Laku Daman, Shullu Anguwi Gorado and Asa Shani, and set a trial for October 4. If convicted, they face a maximum penalty of five years in jail, a $250,000 fine, or both.
Daman was arrested at the airport after Transportation Security Administration officers X-rayed her carry-on bag and noticed an object which at first sight appeared to be an explosive, the FBI said in the complaint.
A criminal complaint described the object as a candy box with a cell phone attached. After investigators spoke to Daman, they traced the item to Gorado and Shani, who live in Phoenix, and arrested them in connection with the incident.
Daman, who lives in Des Moines, Iowa, traveled on July 29 to Phoenix for a wedding and said that while there she met a man named Jaffa, who turned out to be Gorado, the complaint said.
She said Gorado later gave her a package with a box of candy and a cellular telephone taped to it, and asked her to take it to Des Moines, according to the complaint.
Daman's flight reservation also was made through an e-mail account belonging to Gorado, despite her earlier contention that the e-mail address was hers, the complaint said.
When police went to the home of Gorado, he admitted that the candy box containing the Middle Eastern confection helva came from him but he said the cell phone was from Shani, the complaint stated.
The FBI said that on the day Daman arrived in Phoenix, a similar incident "involving an object consisting of an electronic device taped to plastic containers filled with an organic substance" had occurred at a Memphis airport.
The complaint does not detail any other possible connection between the incidents in Phoenix and Memphis, nor does it accuse the Eritreans of being part of a militant group.
Daman told investigators that she was born in Eritrea, spent time in neighboring Ethiopia and had lived in the United States for four months in Portland before recently moving to Des Moines, the complaint states.
Police have said that Gorado and Shani were also from Eritrea, and previously described all three as refugees.
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)