Colombia airline resumes Caracas flights after scare

BOGOTA – Colombia’s flagship airline briefly grounded all flights to Caracas after a Venezuela air force plane flew close to a passenger jet, but the company said Saturday it was resuming service following clarifications from the two governments.

An Avianca Boeing 787 on a flight from Madrid to Bogota with some 200 passengers aboard was cruising at high altitude near Venezuela’s western border with Colombia Friday evening when a Venezuelan military plane was spotted on radar flying a short distance away, the Colombian Defence Ministry said in a statement.

The Avianca pilot immediately notified Colombian aviation authorities and sharply diverted from the flight path. Four minutes later, the military aircraft split away and the jetliner resumed its course, the ministry said.

More than 90 minutes after the flight landed safely in Bogota, Venezuela’s air defence authorities told their Colombian counterparts that the military aircraft was on a routine patrol.

Avianca said it was halting flights to Venezuela and would reroute several flights to Europe to avoid Venezuelan air space. But on Saturday, the airline issued a statement saying it would resume flights to Venezuela on Sunday “following clarifications between the governments of Colombia and Venezuela.”

Venezuelan officials had not commented publicly on the incident, which comes amid a tension-filled standoff between President Nicolas Maduro and his opponents over the decision to suspend a recall referendum against the embattled socialist leader.

Maduro frequently accuses neighbouring Colombia of plotting with his critics to undermine his rule. Relations between the two nations have been hit by a number of crises over the past decade as Venezuela’s role as Latin America’s leftist stalwart has clashed with Colombia’s traditionally staunch support for the United States.

The two countries’ foreign ministers spoke to each other and Maduro, who is on a multi-nation tour of the Middle East, personally ordered an investigation, the Colombian Defence Ministry said.

Defence Minister Luis Carlos Villegas and his Venezuelan counterpart, Gen. Vladimir Padrino, also spoke and agreed to strengthen their early warning communications systems, the ministry added.

Colombians across the political spectrum expressed alarm, attributing political overtones to the incident.

“These manoeuvrs put in serious risk the lives of the passengers on the plane,” said Rodrigo Lara, president of the government-aligned Radical Change party. “It’s more evidence of the unpredictability of Nicolas Maduro’s government.”

Avianca is one of the few foreign airlines still serving Caracas after a number of carriers slashed service or stopped selling tickets to Venezuelans because Maduro’s government, facing a severe cash crunch triggered by low oil prices, hasn’t allowed them to repatriate some $3.8 billion in funds held in the country.