Wednesday 26 April 2017

Head of airline held in jail as part of Chapecoense plane disaster probe

Wreckage from the plane crash in Colombia. AFP/Getty Images
Wreckage from the plane crash in Colombia. AFP/Getty Images
Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

A Bolivian judge has ordered the detention of the head of the airline whose plane crashed in the Andes last week while authorities investigate him for possible charges of manslaughter and other crimes.

Gustavo Vargas, a retired air force general who is chief executive of the LaMia airline, complained at the court hearing that he is being unfairly blamed for the November 28 crash near Medellin, Colombia.

Employees of the Chapecoense team pray inside the team’s dressing room at the Arena Conda stadium in Chapeco, Brazil
Employees of the Chapecoense team pray inside the team’s dressing room at the Arena Conda stadium in Chapeco, Brazil

Authorities have said it was a preventable tragedy that killed all but six of the 77 people on board the plane, including members of a Brazilian football team heading to Colombia for the finals of a South American championship.

"The prosecutors are liars," said a defiant Vargas, who denied any wrongdoing. "The prosecutors can't blame me. They know there are two owners."

The judge's ruling to keep Vargas locked up came as a Bolivian aviation official who fled to Brazil after authorities began investigating why she signed off on the aircraft's flawed flight plan accused her bosses of trying to stage a cover-up.

Until the crash, Celia Castedo was an unknown veteran employee at the regional office of the agency responsible for controlling Bolivia's air traffic.

She was thrust into the spotlight of the five-nation crash investigation after a copy of the flight plan with her signature emerged showing the British-built short-range jetliner was allowed to depart Santa Cruz, Bolivia, with barely enough fuel to complete the more than four-hour flight to Medellin, a flagrant violation of international air norms.

In a letter to Bolivian media made public on Thursday, Ms Castedo said that far from authorising the flight, she tried to stop it. She claimed to have authored an internal report in which she recounted how she asked the airline's dispatcher three times to fix the flight plan.

She said that the day after the crash, superiors who she did not identify "harassed and pressured" her to modify the report, which has been circulating for days in Bolivian media but whose authenticity has yet to be verified.

She said her signature and stamp on the flight plan was a formality acknowledging receipt, saying another government office, Bolivia's civil aviation agency, is exclusively responsible for authorising international chartered flights.

Ms Castedo, who Bolivian officials have said was immediately suspended and put under investigation, said she sought asylum in Brazil because her rights to a fair defence could not be guaranteed.

Authorities have cast doubt on her version of events.

"There were no observations made to the flight plan," public works minister Milton Claros said, accusing Ms Castedo of fabricating the document after the crash to cover up her own negligence.

Aviation experts have also criticised her actions, saying she could have stopped the flight if she had wanted to.

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