Moscow (AFP) – Russia on Thursday arrested the general director and chief accountant of failing VIM-AVIA airline on suspicion of fraud after the carrier ceased operating, leaving tens of thousands of passengers stranded.
Russia’s Investigative Committee, which probes serious crimes, said it had arrested the private airline’s general director, Alexander Kochnev, and its chief accountant, Yekaterina Panteleyeva, after opening a criminal case over fraud, for which they could face up to 10 years in jail.
The pair will face charges, shortly after which a court will decide whether to hold them behind bars, the investigators said.
Investigators said they were also searching for the airline’s co-owners Rashid Mursekayev and his wife Svetlana Mursekayeva after they “hurriedly fled the country.”
The move came after President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday publicly upbraided the transport minister, Maxim Sokolov, and deputy prime minister responsible for transport, Arkady Dvorkovich, over their allegedly incompetent handling of the debacle.
“You aren’t paying enough attention to this industry. Maybe you are overloaded?” Putin asked Dvorkovich in televised comments at a meeting with ministers.
He recounted that Sokolov had told him that the airline conformed to all the necessary criteria to fly.
“What kind of criteria are these? They meet the criteria but they can’t work,” Putin, who is expected to run for a fourth Kremlin term in a vote next year, said angrily.
VIM-AVIA, Russia’s 10th largest carrier in terms of passenger numbers, has said it is planning to go into receivership due to financial hardship.
The airline cancelled flights over the last few days, with some 200,000 passengers expected to be affected.
The head of Russia’s civil aviation agency, Alexander Neradko, said Wednesday that VIM-AVIA has debts of around 7 billion rubles ($120 million).
Neradko proposed an additional insurance payment of 10 rubles on every air ticket to create a reserve to cover possible bankruptcy of airlines.
Transport minister Sokolov said earlier this week that there was no point in the government stepping in to save the airline.
However, Vedomosti business daily on Thursday cited a source close to the airline’s management as saying the carrier was still receiving considerable state funding, including a 55-million ruble ($946,00) subsidy payment on Wednesday.