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Nigeria to close capital's airport for six weeks to fix runway

ABUJA/LAGOS (Reuters) - Nigeria will close the airport in the capital Abuja for six weeks from February to repair its badly damaged runway, the government said on Tuesday, after airlines threatened to stop flying there.

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Flights to Abuja will be diverted to Kaduna, an airport used primarily for domestic flights and where airlines give out handwritten boarding passes. Kaduna lies about 160 km (100 miles) to the north of the capital and is linked by a pot-holed road where kidnappings have taken place.

“The impact (on the economy) will be catastrophic,” said Bismarck Rewane, a leading economist. “Kaduna airport does not have the facilities.”

“The road is very bad. There are kidnappings, Boko Haram,” added Rewane, CEO of Lagos consultancy Financial Derivatives, referring to the Islamist militant group. In July, Sierra Leone’s deputy high commissioner was kidnapped on the road connecting Abuja and Kaduna.

Kaduna’s international airport handled 12 flights in December 2015, the last month for which Nigeria’s airports authority has figures, compared with 812 that used Abuja International.

Nigeria has delayed infrastructure investment for decades, partly because of corruption which means money gets siphoned off before projects can be completed.

Abuja airport, the main gateway to Nigeria along with the commercial capital Lagos, will reopen after six weeks, but the repairs will last six months, the transport ministry said.

Closing the airport would allow German company Julius Berger to carry out “total reconstruction work on the badly damaged airport runway,” it said in a statement. The federal government would provide security for bus shuttles to Kaduna airport.

Aviation Minister Hadi Sirika on Tuesday said Kaduna’s airport was well-equipped to handle the extra demand.

“It has a very robust, functional, effective runway. Those facilities within Kaduna are enough and adequate for the traffic within that period,” he said.

In October, Dubai-based airline Emirates stopped flying to Abuja, blaming the state of the runway among other factors, according to the ministry.

Several airlines have reduced flights to the capital or threatened to stop flying there unless the runway is fixed.

Lagos is Nigeria’s biggest city but the government and central bank are based in Abuja, some 750 km (450 miles) away.

There have been riots in Kaduna between a Shi’ite Muslim sect and the majority Sunni population. Boko Haram militants have also targeted Kaduna, although recently the army has pushed them back.

Additional reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram and Paul Carsten; Editing by Mark Trevelyan/Ruth Pitchford