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Colombia bus fire suspects face 60-year sentences

Colombian prosecutors are seeking 60-year prison sentences for two suspects being blamed for a bus inferno that killed 31 children, their lawyers said.

BOGOTA: Colombian prosecutors are seeking 60-year prison sentences for two suspects being blamed for a bus inferno that killed 31 children, their lawyers said on Wednesday.

The overcrowded vehicle burst into flames and exploded on Sunday in the small northern town of Fundacion as it was ferrying the children home from church services.

The badly charred victims were aged three to 12.

The driver and the evangelical pastor who chartered the bus face prosecution for "voluntary homicide so that public prosecutors can request the maximum penalty," attorney Mauricio Ramirez said.

Jaime Gutierrez, who initially fled the scene, turned himself over to police as families sought to hunt him down after, according to a witness, the bus went up in flames as he refuelled it with a jerry can.

The gasoline somehow ignited, turning the vehicle into a fireball. Most of its young passengers, trapped inside, were burned alive.

The 56-year-old had no valid license and was driving the bus illegally.

The defence is challenging the murder charge, requesting instead that the suspects - who have been arrested - be prosecuted for involuntary homicide, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years.

"This was negligent conduct but not intentional. We cannot compare them to criminals who intended to do harm," another attorney for the suspects, Diego Duque, told AFP.

"He made a mistake but one cannot say it was deliberate," Duque said, adding that one of the driver's daughters died in the fire.

Duque said the defence intended to negotiate with Santa Marta prosecutors so that the suspects "assume their responsibility in a proportionate manner" and "not under media pressure."

In the wake of the tragedy, which shocked and angered the South American nation, the Colombian government declared three days of mourning.

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