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Airline owner barred from leaving Pakistan

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan on Saturday barred the head of the airline whose jet crashed near the capital from leaving the country, vowing to investigate a tragedy that has revived fears about the safety of aviation in a country saddled by massive economic problems.

The Bhoja Air passenger jet crashed Friday evening as it tried to land in a thunderstorm at Islamabad's main airport, killing all 127 people on board.

It was the second major air disaster close to the capital in less than two years and triggered fresh criticism of an already embattled government, which faced questions over why it gave a license to the tiny airline last month.

After visiting the crash scene, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Farooq Bhoja, the head of Bhoja Air, had been put on the "exit control list," which bars him from leaving Pakistan. Such a ban is often put on someone suspected or implicated in a criminal case.

Malik said Bhoja had been ordered into protective custody and a criminal investigation launched into the crash, presumably running alongside the one being carried out by aviation authorities.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani also ordered a third probe, known as a judicial commission, into the crash.

Nadeem Yousufzai, head of the Civil Aviation Authority, urged people not to speculate on the cause of the crash before all the evidence was collected.

He said he had listened to a recording of the conversation between the pilot and the control tower and said the pilot was "happy." He said the weather was bad but that another plane landed safely at the airport five minutes after the crash.

He denied there was any "political pressure" in the awarding of the license to Bhoja Air, one of just three private airlines in Pakistan. The airline only recently received a permit and began flying last month after it lost its license in 2001 because of financial difficulties.

A representative for Bhoja Air, Jahanzeb Khan, declined comment on the travel ban against Farooq Bhoja and said the airline would discuss the case after the investigation was complete.

Malik, the interior minister, appeared to back up theories that the age of the aircraft may have been a factor, saying the airline "seems to be at fault, as it had acquired a very old aircraft."

"If the airline management doesn't have enough money, it doesn't mean you go and buy a 30-year-old or more aircraft as if it were a rickshaw and start an airline," he said.

According to the Web site, the Bhoja jet was 32 years old and first saw service with British Airways.

Thirty-two years is not especially old for an aircraft, and age alone is rarely a major factor in crashes, said Nasim Ahmed, a former crash investigator.

The storm that was lashing Islamabad when the crash occurred has led some experts to speculate that "wind shear," sudden changes in wind that can lift or smash an aircraft into the ground during landing, may have been a factor.

The plane was flying from the southern city of Karachi to Islamabad when it crashed.

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