ISLAMABAD, Pakistan —The Pakistani government barred the head of the airline involved in a deadly jet crash from leaving the country Saturday as investigators stepped up their probe of the country’s second major air disaster in less than two years.
The Boeing 737-200 operated by Bhoja Air crashed Friday night while making its approach to Benazir Bhutto International Airport in Islamabad amid a heavy thunderstorm, killing all 127 people on board.
Although the weather's role in the crash was still being investigated, questions mounted about Bhoja Air. The small Karachi-based domestic airline had shut down in 2001 because of financial difficulties and had just resumed operations last month.
Bhoja had recently bought the 27-year-old aircraft involved in the crash.
The airline's owner, Farooq Bhoja, was barred from leaving Pakistan, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said, a restriction usually placed on those who are expected to become the subject of a criminal investigation. Bhoja officials have blamed the crash on bad weather.
The flight departed from Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, and was carrying 121 passengers and six crew members, officials said.
Officials with the Civil Aviation Authority, Pakistan’s governing body for commercial aviation, acknowledged that the plane was flying through a heavy storm but added that the pilot had ample information in advance about weather conditions and had the discretion to change his route if he thought the approach would be too risky.
Nadeem Yousafzai, the agency’s director-general, said at a news conference that the control tower had cleared the Bhoja flight to land.
"The pilot acknowledged and pulled the landing gear down," Yousafzai said. "Immediately afterward, communication was lost and the plane went into a dive. What happened in this period needs to be investigated."
The incident renewed concerns about Pakistan’s poor commercial aviation history, a track record plagued by corruption, lack of government oversight and as many as seven commercial airliner crashes on Pakistani territory since 1970.
The last major airliner crash occurred in July 2010, when a passenger jet operated by Airblue, a domestic airline, crashed into a hillside outside Islamabad, killing all 152 people aboard.
The plane was flying through heavy fog and rain, but a Pakistani investigation blamed pilot error for the crash. It is regarded as the worst domestic aviation disaster in Pakistan’s history.
-- Alex Rodriguez and Nasir Khan
Photo: Part of the charred wreckage of the Bhoja Air jet that crashed Friday lies in a street in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Credit: Khaqan Khawer / EPA