NEWS
10/22/2016 10:35 EDT | Updated 10/23/2017 01:12 EDT

Colombia airline halts Caracas flights on mid-air intercept

BOGOTA — Colombia's flagship airline has grounded all flights to Caracas after a confusing mid-air intercept of one of its planes by Venezuela's air force.

Avianca said that until further notice it's also rerouting several flights to Europe to avoid Venezuelan air space.

"We're waiting for them to guarantee the security conditions required to operate," Avianca spokeswoman Gilma Usuga told The Associated Press.

The incident took place on a Bogota-bound flight that departed Friday from Madrid. The Boeing 787 with some 200 passengers aboard was cruising at a high altitude near Venezuela's western border with Colombia when at 7:10 p.m. local time (00:10 GMT) another aircraft was spotted on radar flying at a short distance. The pilot immediately notified Colombian aviation authorities and sharply diverted from the flight path. Four minutes later, the military aircraft took off and the plane resumed its course, the Colombian Defence Ministry said in a statement.

More than 90 minutes after the flight landed safely in Bogota, Venezuela's air defence authorities responded to repeated calls from their Colombian counterparts to say that the military aircraft was on a routine patrol.

Venezuelan officials have yet to comment 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, as well as Maduro's opponents, 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 servicing Caracas after a number of carriers slashed service and 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.

Avianca's decision affects multiple daily flights between Caracas and Bogota and Lima, Peru as well as flights to the tiny Caribbean island of Barbados, which is near Venezuela.