Airline boss questioned by prosecutors over Chapecoense plane crash in Colombia

Bolivian prosecutors are yet to decide if the LaMia boss and two other staff members would be formally arrested

BY Newstalk 07:00 Wednesday 7 December 2016, 7:00 7 Dec 2016

Picture by Luis Benavides AP/Press Association Images

The head of the airline whose plane crashed in Colombia, killing 19 members of the Brazilian football team Chapecoense, has been detained by prosecutors for questioning.

Gustavo Vargas, a retired Bolivian air force general, was picked up in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz along with a mechanic and secretary who worked at his LaMia airline.

They are being quizzed about their roles in letting the short-range jet attempt a more than four-hour flight from Santa Cruz to Medellin in Colombia, a journey for which it barely had enough fuel.

Bolivian Attorney General Ramiro Guerrero said the initial investigation is into possible criminal failure to follow safety procedures.

"It could easily turn into a manslaughter case," he said.

A total of 71 people were killed when the British Aerospace 146 came down in a mountainous area last week.

There were just six survivors - two Bolivian crew members, a journalist and three players of the Brazilian team, who were heading to play in the biggest game in their history.

The pilot radioed air traffic controllers to say he was running out of fuel and needed to make an emergency landing before the crash.

Bolivian prosecutors are yet to decide if any of the three would be formally arrested.

The airline's offices and those of the agency that oversees air traffic in Bolivia have also been raided.

Authorities are also investigating whether LaMia, which only received permission to fly earlier this year, was favoured by Mr Vargas' son, who ran the office responsible for licensing aircraft in Bolivia's civil aviation agency.

After the crash, LaMia had its license revoked and several aviation officials, including Mr Vargas' son, were suspended.

One of the survivors said he had been reassured by the airline before takeoff that the plane would make a stop to refuel in the Bolivian city of Cobija, as it had on previous flights north.

"I don't know if it was a fuel problem - the investigation will determine that," Erwin Tumiri told the Associated Press during an interview from his home in Cochabamba, where he is recovering. 

"But every time we flew we went first to Cobija and returned the same way to refuel. On this occasion they said we'd do the same."

Meanwhile, an employee in Bolivia's aviation agency turned up in Brazil on Tuesday seeking asylum.

In a document circulating in Bolivian media, the worker, Celia Castedo, appears to have pointed out a number of irregularities in the aircraft's flight plan, including not having enough fuel, to LaMia's dispatcher, who was killed in the crash.

The authenticity of the document could not be immediately verified.

A top Bolivian government official said Ms Castedo, who was among the officials suspended following the crash, was potentially evading justice and should be immediately deported.

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