• The fire is being treated as arson, police say. Flames were seen rising from the shipment around 2.30pm. Firefighters promptly put out the fire
  • No passengers were on board plane that cargo was meant for

Police arrested one man in connection with a fire at Hong Kong Airport on Tuesday afternoon, in an incident that is being treated as arson.

A 21-year-old non-Chinese man was arrested in the early evening. According to preliminary inquiries, the cause of the fire was “suspicious”, the police added.

A cargo pallet awaiting loading onto a Hong Kong Airlines plane caught fire shortly before a flight to Taipei was due to take off on Tuesday.

In pictures of the incident posted on social media, firefighters could be seen tackling the fire with flames and smoke rising from the cargo, with at least one firefighter climbing on top of the pallet.

“We received a call at 2.26pm and we arrived four minutes later. The case [concluded] at 2:55pm,” a Fire Services Department spokeswoman said.

An airport source near the scene shared a photo which showed stacks of boxes on crates marked with the Supermicro computer logo. The Taiwanese-American company makes computer processing units.

Investigators are still trying to establish what was in the box that caught fire.

Initially, the source said the fire could have been the result of a lithium-ion battery that overheated. Such batteries are no longer permitted in the hold on passenger or cargo aircraft, and most major airlines, including Cathay Pacific Airways, forbid them. However the battery is allowed in carry-on luggage depending on how powerful it is.

The fire services spokeswoman could not confirm however if a battery was involved in the fire. 

“We found there were stock samples on fire. We have no information on the cause that a battery caught fire. We just know the stock sample got burned and it was made of wood,” the spokeswoman said.

A spokeswoman for Hong Kong Airlines said: “Fire services were immediately notified to put out the fire and there are no reports of injuries. Safety is our priority. We have suspended the concerned shipment and are working with authorities to investigate the incident.”

The airline is in the midst of intense financial scrutiny, as the government, among others, probes the health of the carrier.

The fire happened outside the airport’s midfield terminal, where Hong Kong Airlines’ operations are located.

“No one was injured and airport operations were not affected,” the Airport Authority said in a statement.

Hong Kong International Airport is the world’s busiest hub for cargo traffic. It handled more than 5 million tonnes of cargo and airmail in 2017, the first such airport in the world to achieve the feat.