Brazil reacts with fury after jet crash leaves 200 dead

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The Independent US

Brazil's opposition leaders accused the country's Defence minister of "murder" last night after about 200 people died when an aircraft skidded off a runway with a record of safety problems.

The crash - the worst in the country's history - happened after the Airbus 320 skidded off a wet runway at Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo and veered across a busy main road in the height of Tuesday's evening rush hour. The airliner, carrying 180 passengers and 6 crew on an internal flight, then slammed into a fuel depot owned by the airline, TAM, before erupting in flames.

The airline confirmed that all people on the flight had been killed. It is thought that about 20 people on the ground were also killed when the flight from the southern city of Porto Alegre crashed.

There were angry recriminations yesterday in a country struggling with its second major air tragedy in less than a year. In September, more than 150 people died when a plane crashed in the Amazon jungle. In 1996, a Tam Fokker-100 crashed minutes after take off from Congonhas, killing 99 people.

The Sao Paulo runway was known to be dangerously short. In February, a judge banned the use of the airport by wide-bodied jets - like the one involved in the most recent accident - over fears they could skid off the short landing strip. It also emerged yesterday that the runway had been re-paved just last month and, crucially, Brazil's airport authority confirmed that it had yet to be grooved to drain water during strong rains.

It had been raining heavily for most of Tuesday in Sao Paulo, and witnesses at the scene described the runway as "slippy and greasy". The BBC reported that the day before the crash, another plane had skidded off the same runway.

"It was a pre-announced tragedy, an accident in waiting," said Sandra Assali, the president of a Brazilian air-crash victims support group.

Meanwhile, Brazilian opposition leaders demanded the resignation of the Defence minister, Waldir Pires, along with that of the heads of the country's airport authority, Infraero. "Reopening a runway that was not ready is tantamount to murder, they should go to prison," said Onyx Lorenzoni, head of the Democratas opposition party.

Antonio Carlos Pannunzio, the head of the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party, said: "[Pires] has nothing left to do in office, if he ever did anything."

Some analysts were also predicting that the accident would damage the standing of the President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who ordered police to investigate whether the runway was reopened prematurely.

By last night, firefighters had recovered 189 bodies. The aircraft was reported to have burned at temperatures of 1,000C after the crash and more victims are expected.

According to reports, cars were caught in the crash and people were seen jumping from the first and second floors of the TAM building. A witness, Guido Reusch, said: "[The plane] touched down in front of us, left the runway, slid off behind the buildings at the end of the runway and crashed."