| KABUL, July 19
KABUL, July 19 As flying over conflict zones
comes under scrutiny following the downing of Malaysian Airlines
Flight MH17 in Ukraine, Afghanistan, one of the world's most
dangerous places, is worried airlines might once again opt to
avoid its airspace.
Afraid of being shot down, some airlines have decided to
circumnavigate the area where pro-Russian rebels are fighting
Ukrainian force after the crash, raising concern that companies
could follow suit in other conflict zones such as Afghanistan.
The Taliban, equipped mainly with small weapons and
rocket-propelled grenades, do not have the military capacity to
down aircraft at cruising altitude.
But the militants frequently fire short-range rockets in
attack on airports - the main worry for commercial airlines
flying in to the country.
"The security situation at Kabul airport is bad," said
Hikmatullah Qwanch, a spokesman for the Ministry of
Transportation and Aviation.
"If there are more attacks on the airports and Afghanistan's
sky is not safe, then it will soon affect operations."
On Thursday, militants attacked Kabul airport just after
dawn, engaging in a protracted gun-battle with security forces
before being surrounded and killed by Afghan troops.
The incident prompted India's SpiceJet to cancel flights to
Afghanistan, the ministry said, adding however that the
suspension was not related to the events in Ukraine.
The downing of the Malaysian jetliner in an eastern
Ukrainian region may have little relevance to the current
situation in Afghanistan but it has certainly added to a sense
of nervousness among global airlines.
"Bad security of the Kabul International Airport resulted in
SpiceJet cancelling flights to Afghanistan on Friday and there
are rumours that Turkish Airlines, FlyDubai and Emirates also
want to suspend their flights to Afghanistan until the security
situation gets better," said Hikmatullah.
A Turkish Airlines official said for now there were no such
plans. An Emirates official said all flights were operating
"If the situation gets worse or attacks on Kabul airport
become routine then we will stop our flights to Kabul," the
Emirates official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
No foreign airlines dared flying to or over Afghanistan at
the height of the war against Taliban insurgents following the
2001 U.S.-led invasion but in recent years business has boomed,
with more airlines opening routes to the capital, Kabul, and
numerous airliners crossing over the country every day.
But security is deteriorating. Galvanized by the expected
withdrawal of foreign forces this year, insurgents have been
particularly active, attacking Kabul airport twice in just over
a year and firing rockets at its facilities almost weekly.
The Taliban were not immediately available for comment.
With its strategic location between the Indian subcontinent
and Central Asia, Afghanistan is hard to avoid for airlines
flying between Asia and Europe, and its airspace is crucial for
global route planning.
NATO-led troops, known as the International Security
Assistance Force, are for now responsible for advising
Afghanistan on the safety of its skies.
But once foreign forces leave at the end of the year, the
responsibility will fall on Afghan air traffic controllers -
another concern for foreign airlines mulling the future of their
business in, and over, Afghanistan.
The NATO-led force, however, is optimistic in its assessment
of Afghanistan's airspace safety.
"Recent events in Ukraine have no relevance or direct
correlation with the current situation in Afghanistan. The
Taliban does not have an air force, nor do they possess a
sophisticated air defence capability," USAF told Reuters in an
"(Afghan forces are) capable of ensuring the security of the
skies over their country. In particular, the Afghan Air Force
has improved significantly over the last year and is now
offering the ANSI (Afghan forces) support in many areas where
they were previously entirely coalition dependent."
(Writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by Robert Birsel)