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Brazil minister fired in wake of deadly plane crash

  • Story Highlights
  • Brazil's president fires minister in charge of air travel
  • Move comes after nearly 200 died in Brazil's worst plane crash last week
  • Nelson Jobim will become defense minister, the top official in air traffic system
  • Waldir Pires forced out as defense chief after two deadly crashes since last fall
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BRASILIA, Brazil (Reuters) -- Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva fired his defense minister on Wednesday, heeding calls for the removal of top aviation officials after nearly 200 people were killed in Brazil's worst air crash last week.

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Brazil and Ecuador players mourn crash victims at the start of a Pan American Games women's soccer match.

Waldir Pires was forced out as defense minister after two deadly air crashes in less than a year and months of chaos in Brazil's air traffic system, which the military runs.

The president's office said Nelson Jobim, a retired Supreme Court justice with close ties to Lula da Silva, will take over the defense ministry.

"At this time, we needed someone with a different profile to lead the ministry and especially to deal with the aviation crisis," said Marcelo Baumbach, the presidential spokesman.

Pires had been under pressure to resign since last September, when a Boeing 737 operated by Brazil's Gol airline clipped wings with a private jet and crashed in the Amazon jungle. All 154 people on board died.

Lula da Silva, who has a history of being slow in reacting to crises, had been reluctant to dismiss his longtime friend.

But the pressure to oust him increased sharply after an Airbus A320 flown by the TAM airline skidded off a rain-slicked runway last week at Sao Paulo's Congonhas Airport and crashed into a cargo terminal and gas station, bursting into flames.

All 187 people on board and at least 12 on the ground were killed in the worst aviation accident in Brazil's history.

Jobim, who previously had refused an offer to take over the ministry, will be sworn in later Wednesday, two presidential aides told Reuters.

One of Jobim's first tasks as defense minister may be to find a replacement for the head of the national airports authority Infraero, Jose Carlos Pereira, whose leadership has also been called into question during the crisis.

Jobim also will have to find ways to restore a sense of normalcy at Brazilian airports, which have been plagued by delays and cancellations since the Gol crash last year exposed serious flaws in the country's aviation system.

Air traffic controllers, fearing they were being blamed for the crash, have periodically held work slowdowns to protest outdated radar and radio equipment and poor salaries.

The crisis deepened over the weekend when a radar outage in the Amazon forced more than a dozen international flights to change course, causing delays in Brazil and the United States. Bad weather and a runway problem in Sao Paulo have added to the woes, leaving passengers stranded at airports all over Brazil.

Nearly half of all flights in the country were delayed or canceled Wednesday for the fourth straight day, according to Infraero. By midday, 168 flights were delayed, and 121 more had been canceled.

Pires' handling of the aviation crisis was widely criticized as ineffective. He struggled to assert his authority over the military, which is in charge of the controllers, and he became the public face of Brazil's air travel woes.

Several aviation experts say inexperience, negligence and air safety budget cutbacks are to blame for the crisis. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Copyright 2007 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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