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Search for missing children in Colombia puts spotlight on air travel in Amazon

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As the Colombian military frantically searches for four children missing after a jungle plane crash over two weeks ago, new details are emerging about the plane’s history – and local concerns over the safety of air travel in that part of the Amazon.

The single engine Cessna 206 HK-2803 that crashed into the rainforest on May 1 was carrying seven people, of which four were children.

Search and rescue teams have located three adult bodies, but only traces of the children, aged 11 months to 13 years old: a baby bottle, hair ties, a make-shift shelter and even what appeared to be small footprints.

Indigenous activists who mourned the deaths in a statement earlier this week said the crash was no surprise, accusing airline companies operating in the Amazon of chasing profits and the Colombian government of failing to uphold safety standards.

“The Colombian state is responsible for this tragedy and all those similar,” indigenous advocacy group OPIAC said, alleging an “absolute negligence” of controls and procedures for air safety in the area, and pointing out that indigenous people in the area have few alternative travel options.

The report states that the plane was built in 1982 and, prior to the 2021 crash, had accumulated over 10 thousand flight hours.

The three crew on the plane at that time only suffered minor injuries and were rescued by indigenous scouts, however the plane suffered considerable damage to the propeller, engine and wing section, the report states. Aviation engineers had to replace the entire front and left wing of the aircraft to make it airworthy again.

“It’s true that [the] plane crashed in the jungle, but nothing happened,” said Giselle Lopez, owner of Avianline Charter’s SAS, the charter company that owns the aircraft, which also has a contract for air ambulance services in the Amazon region.

Missing for nearly three weeks

The missing children’s wellbeing has become a national concern in Colombia.

President Gustavo Petro drew global attention to the incident earlier this week with a tweet prematurely celebrating their rescue; he later deleted it, saying the news had not been confirmed.

Colombia’s military has taken pains to highlight its search and rescue efforts to the public, with Air Force General Pedro Sanchez on Friday saying that over 150 uniformed men had been deployed to “saturate the jungle.”

“We will search inch-by-inch until we find them,” he vowed in an appearance on the military’s Instagram page.

On Friday, the military released a map of the area of operation, covering a stretch of jungle of over 300 square kilometers (115 square miles), roughly six times bigger than the island of Manhattan.

In addition to canine and search teams, rescuers have tried to make contact with the four children by broadcasting a recording of their grandmother’s voice speaking in the indigenous Huitoto language, their native tongue.

Relatives say the children knew the jungle well, and are holding out hope that they will be found alive.

“Maybe they are hiding,” said Fidencio Valencia, the children’s grandfather, speaking to Colombia’s Caracol TV on Thursday.

“Maybe they don’t realize that they are looking for them; they are children… but we hope that they are alive and have access to water, because water is life.”

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