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Bolivia vows tough action over fatal air crash

Bolivia’s President Evo Morales promised tough action over the airline crash that killed most of the Brazilian football team Chapecoense on Monday night. 

The deaths of the 71 people, who also included team officials and journalists, in the crash follow indications the British Aerospace regional jet had run out of fuel and amid speculation that it was on a flight path that was longer than its specified range.

“Drastic measures will be taken” to determine what went wrong, Mr Morales, an avid football player and fan, told reporters on Friday.

The use of the relatively unknown airline, LaMia Bolivia, that has no direct flight connections to Brazil has sparked questions over why Chapecoense, a club from Brazil’s southern city of Curitiba, chose it over a regular airline operating out of the country. 

Mr Morales, who was speaking after Bolivian authorities on Thursday moved to suspend the carrier’s operating licence, said that he used to spot aircraft belonging to LaMia that were grounded for months. “It surprised me [the airline] had authorisation” to fly, he added.

Reuters reported that LaMia Bolivia was owned by pilot Miguel Quiroga, who died while piloting the crashed aircraft, and Marco Rocha, a former military officer.

It said the airline rented its three aircraft, only one of which was operational, from LaMia, a separate corporate entity owned by Venezuelan businessman Ricardo Albacete.

Mr Albacete originally established LaMia in 2009 in the Venezuelan state of Mérida but did not receive operational clearances from government authorities so he leased the planes to LaMia Bolivia.

He said in an interview in 2011 that one of his investors was a Chinese businessman, Sam Pa, a tycoon who has built a network of interests in oil, minerals and infrastructure by cultivating regimes regarded as among the world’s most repressive, from Angola to North Korea.

The US Treasury in April 2014 placed Mr Pa on a list of persons with whom US nationals cannot do business for participating in alleged corruption in Zimbabwe and “illicit diamond deals”. 

“This Chinese [businessman] is a very good friend of ours, he is very well off and I have known him for some years,” Mr Albacete told a Venezuelan television interviewer in 2011. “His name is Sam Pa and he has investments in Angola.” 

He did not elaborate on the investment he received from Mr Pa. It is also not clear if the Chinese businessmen, who the US Treasury describes as a Chinese national with UK and Angolan citizenship, is still an investor. 

Mr Pa and Mr Albacete were unavailable for comment. But Mr Pa has in the past denied any wrongdoing in Zimbabwe.

Last year, Mr Pa was detained in Beijing as part of President Xi Jinping’s campaign against corruption. It remains unclear whether he is still in detention or has been released, or whether he is still an investor in LaMia Venezuela. 

Mr Albacete sought to distance himself from the Bolivian airline in an interview this week with the Spain-based site El Confidencial. “We are neither shareholders nor employees of LaMia Bolivia, but of LaMia Venezuela. We kept the same name in order not to lose the paint on the aircrafts. We are the ones who rent the planes to them, but the plane is operated by the Bolivian company.”

The Chapecoense team, a small side that had enjoyed a dream year in Brazil having only reached first division in 2014, was on its way to a game in the Copa Sudamericana against Atlético Nacional of Medellín at the time of the crash. 

The team boarded a separate airline in Guarulhos, São Paulo, on Monday for Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, where it then took the LaMia flight to Medellín. 

The crash occurred on Monday night with officials of Colombia’s Aerocivil saying that the LaMia flight was out of fuel the moment that it hit a mountain near Medellín airport. 

During a press conference on Thursday, officials of Chapecoense said they chose LaMia because it had carried other football teams in South America and the price, which he indicated was R$500,000, was the most reasonable compared with other options. 

LaMia recently flew the Argentine national team, which includes international stars such as Lionel Messi, to Brazil and earlier this year, Venezuela’s team to Colombia. 

Via FT