News / World

Colombia repatriates dead as airline's licensing questioned

Funeral employees place white sheets with a Chapecoense soccer team logo on caskets containing the remains of team members, in Medellin, Colombia, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. Forensic authorities say they have managed to identify a majority of the victims of Monday's Colombian air tragedy and hope to finish their work on Thursday. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

Funeral employees place white sheets with a Chapecoense soccer team logo on caskets containing the remains of team members, in Medellin, Colombia, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. Forensic authorities say they have managed to identify a majority of the victims of Monday's Colombian air tragedy and hope to finish their work on Thursday. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

RIO NEGRO, Colombia — Colombia began repatriating the victims of this week's tragic air crash in the Andes as Bolivia's president called for "drastic measures" against aviation officials who signed off on a flight plan that experts and even one of the charter airline's executives said should never have been attempted due to concerns over a possible fuel shortage.

The move by President Evo Morales came after evidence surfaced that the pilot reported the plane was out of fuel minutes before it slammed into a muddy mountainside on Monday, killing all but six of the 77 people on board. Among the dead were players and coaches from a small-town Brazilian soccer team that was headed to the finals of one of South America's most prestigious tournaments after a fairy-tale season that had captivated their soccer-crazed nation.

As an honour guard played taps early Friday, members of Colombia's military loaded five Bolivian crew members who died in the crash onto a cargo plane for the trip back home.

The bodies of 50 Brazilians were to be repatriated later Friday to the Chapecoense team's hometown of Chapeco in southern Brazil. Fourteen Brazilian journalists travelling with the team and two passengers from other South American nations were being sent home on separate flights.

On Friday, row upon row of caskets covered with white sheets printed with the Brazilian soccer club's green and white logo filled a Medellin funeral home.

The sombre farewell come as details emerged pointing to possible negligence and unsettling family ties between LaMia airline, the Bolivian charter company, and the aviation agency that approved the flight plan between Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and Medellin, that exceeded the British-built short-haul jet's maximum flying range.

Attention is focused on a former Bolivian air force general, Gustavo Vargas, who is one of LaMia's owners and whose son headed the office responsible for licensing aircraft in Bolivia's civil aviation agency. As part of the investigation, the younger Vargas was suspended Thursday along with several other high-ranking aviation officials. The airline, whose only operable aircraft was the British Aerospace 146 Avro RJ85 that crashed, was also grounded.

Morales said Friday that the elder Vargas served as his pilot in 2006. But he said that he had no knowledge of the airline's existence and called for a "profound investigation" to explain whether Vargas' son, also named Gustavo Vargas, favoured the airline, which has transported the national teams of Argentina and Brazil, as well as many other top-flight South American clubs.

One of the suspended officials, Marcelo Chavez, the regional director of the agency that controls air traffic in Bolivia, told The Associated Press that an inspector for the agency had pointed out irregularities in the airlines' flight plan, including the fact that the aircraft's fuel capacity was barely enough to fly directly to Medellin. Chavez said the airline decided to go ahead with the flight anyway and air traffic controllers had no authority to prevent them.

On Thursday, the airlines' operations director told an Argentine radio network that he also had disapproved of the flight plan. "I wouldn't have flown direct," the executive, Marco Rocha, said.

At LaMia's office in a small, middle-class home in Santa Cruz, a secretary on Thursday said the airline had yet to be notified of any sanctions. A black rose was left outside the door.

A recording of conversations between a pilot of the doomed flight and air traffic controllers, as well as the account of a surviving flight attendant, indicated the plane ran out of fuel before crashing just a few miles from Medellin's international airport.

In the flight's final minutes, pilot Miguel Quiroga, who co-owned the airline with Vargas, could be heard requesting permission to land because of "fuel problems," although at first he didn't make a formal distress call. He was told another plane with mechanical problems had priority to land at the airport's single runway and was instructed to wait seven minutes.

As the jetliner circled, the pilot grew more desperate. "Complete electrical failure, without fuel," he said. By then the controller had gauged the seriousness of the situation and told the other plane to abandon its approach to make way for the charter jet. But it was too late.

In Brazil, grieving relatives of the dead spoke out in disbelief.

Osmar Machado, whose son, Filipe, a defender on the Chapecoense team, died on his father's 66th birthday, questioned why the plane was transporting the team.

"Profit brings greed," Machado said, speaking in Chapeco on Thursday. "This plane ended (the lives of) 71 people."

Williams Brasiliano, uncle of midfielder Arthur Maia, said the crash could have been avoided if the team had chosen a commercial flight and not a charter.

"Look how complicated that flight was going to be even if it had arrived," Brasiliano said tearfully of the team's itinerary, which included a flight from Sao Paulo to Bolivia on a commercial airliner before the ill-fated flight to Medellin.

"I doubt that a bigger club would have done the same," he added.

Chapecoense spokesman Andrei Copetti defended the decision, saying more than 30 teams had used LaMia airlines, including the national teams of Argentina and Bolivia. He added that the team itself had flown on its flights before.

"They had a good service then. It was the airline that got in touch with us because they have experience in doing these long flights in South America," he said

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Valdez reported from La Paz, Bolivia. Associated Press writers Hannah Dreier from Caracas, Venezuela and Cesar Garcia from Bogota, Colombia contributed to this report.