July 26, 2017 / 5:32 PM / a year ago

UPDATE 1-Avianca suspends flights to Venezuela due to operational, security issues

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BOGOTA, July 26 (Reuters) - Avianca said on Wednesday it will suspend flights to and from Venezuela beginning on Aug. 16, amid operational and security difficulties, the latest commercial carrier to pull out of the crisis-hit socialist country.

The Colombian airline will cancel its Bogota-Caracas-Bogota and Lima-Caracas-Lima routes, a total of three daily flights, beginning Aug. 16, it said in a statement. Customers who have already bought tickets for after that date will be fully reimbursed.

The Colombian flagship carrier is the latest airline to leave the country, further isolating Venezuelans amid widespread unrest and protests. Companies have cited everything from payment disputes to safety concerns.

United canceled its services to the country in June. Lufthansa and Air Canada have also pulled out.

Many airlines have been in protracted disputes with the government over billions of dollars of ticket sales made in the beleaguered local currency. They say President Nicolas Maduro’s administration has failed to reimburse them per strict currency controls.

The International Air Transport Association said last month that Venezuela owes airlines more than $3.8 billion.

“Avianca will examine this decision after it learns the results of technical work conducted by authorities of both countries to resolve these operational and security impediments,” the statement said.

The decision followed a meeting in Bogota with aviation authorities, the company said, adding it has informed both the Colombian and Venezuelan governments.

Improvements are needed to socialist Venezuela’s airport infrastructure, the company said, as well as guarantees that services can operate consistently.

“After more than 60 years of continuous service to Venezuela, Avianca regrets having to take this difficult decision, but our obligation is to guarantee the safety of the operation,” Chief Executive Hernan Rincon said in the statement. “We are willing to restart the flights, once we have the required conditions.” (Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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