September 8, 2015 / 1:07 PM / 4 years ago

Bulgaria refusing airspace access to Russian aid flights to Syria

ATHENS/SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria has serious doubts about the cargo on board planes that Russia says it will fly into Syria with aid, and has refused them access to its airspace, the foreign ministry in Sofia said on Tuesday.

The United States, deeply concerned by reports of a Russian military build-up in Syria, had earlier asked Greece to deny the same flights access to Greek airspace, an official in Athens said on Monday.

“We have enough information that makes us have serious doubts about the cargo of the planes, which is the reason for the refusal,” a Bulgarian foreign ministry spokeswoman said.

The Russian foreign ministry declined immediate comment.

Russia has a military base inside Syria and supports President Bashar al-Assad who is opposed by most Western powers.

Russia has been sending flights to Syria throughout the conflict, which it says have been delivering aid and helping evacuate Russian nationals from the country.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow “has never concealed that it delivers military equipment to official Syrian authorities with the aim of combating terrorism”. (L5N11D1OF)

Moscow sent Athens a request 20 days ago to allow access to Greek airspace for humanitarian aid flights to Syria, Rodolfos Moronis, spokesman for Greece’s interim government, said on Tuesday.

Russian newswire RIA Novosti said on Monday that Russia was seeking permission to run the flights up to Sept. 24.

But it was not immediately clear why Russia had made the request and how it related to the flights it is already running into Syria.

Russia now planned to use a route east of Greek airspace for the flights, Moronis said.

Syria has borders with Turkey to the north and Iraq to the east.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian defense analyst, said Russia has been trying to avoid Turkish airspace since a 2012 incident in which Ankara forced a Russian civilian jet en route to Damascus to land in Turkey and confiscated its cargo.

    Ankara said at the time the plane was carrying Russian-made munitions destined for Syria’s armed forces. Moscow denied that and said a legal shipment of radar equipment was on board.

Reporting by Renee Maltezou in Athens, Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia, Sylvia Westall in Beirut, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; Writing by John Stonestreet

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