Colombia demands answers from Venezuela after near crash with military plane

Colombia wants answers as to why a Venezuelan military airplane flew so close to a passenger jet while causing a near collision late last week.

A Boeing 787 belonging to Colombia's national airline, Avianca, flying from Madrid to Bogotá with some 200 passengers aboard was cruising at high altitude in Venezuelan airspace on Friday night when a military plane was spotted on radar a short distance away, the Colombian Defense Ministry said in a statement.

The Avianca pilot, who notified Colombian aviation authorities about the plane, was forced to divert sharply from the flight path before the military aircraft peeled off. The jetliner resumed its course about four minutes later.

Venezuelan air defense authorities told their Colombian counterparts that the military aircraft was on a routine patrol; however, Colombia’s Defense Minister wants a better answer.

Luis Carlos Villegas, who discussed the incident with Venezuela’s Defense Minister, Gen. Vladimir Padrino on Saturday, said he has asked his country’s Foreign Ministry to demand a formal explanation for the “routine patrol.”

The Colombian Defense Ministry said the two men did agree to strengthen their early warning communications systems.

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

Maduro frequently accuses neighboring 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 has taken on a more leftist, anti-American role in the region, something that sets the country in opposition to Colombia's traditionally staunch support for the United States.

Maduro, who is on a multi-nation tour of the Middle East, personally ordered an investigation, the Colombian Defense Ministry said.

Avianca briefly halted flights to Caracas and said it would reroute several flights to avoid Venezuelan airspace. But on Saturday it issued a statement saying it would resume flights to Venezuela on Sunday “following clarifications between the governments of Colombia and Venezuela.”

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

"These maneuvers put in serious risk the lives of the passengers on the plane," said Rodrigo Lara, president of the Radical Change party. "It's more evidence of the unpredictability of Nicolás 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 in the country because Maduro's government, facing a severe cash crunch triggered by low oil prices, hasn't allowed the companies to repatriate some $3.8 billion in funds held in the country.

The Associated Press and EFE contributed to this report.

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