Georgia bars Syrian airlines from crossing its airspace

TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia has denied two Syrian airlines access to its airspace in retaliation for Damascus recognizing the statehood of two Georgian breakaway regions last month, a senior aviation official told Reuters.

One of the airlines, Cham Wings, was revealed by a Reuters investigation in April to have transported Russian private military contractors to take part in the fighting in Syria.

“I can confirm that Georgia’s airspace is closed for two Syrian air companies: Syrian Air and Cham Wings,” Gocha Mezvrishvili, head of the ex-Soviet country’s Air Navigation Service, said late on Tuesday.

“It will be closed for any Syrian air companies ... We made this decision after Syria recognized our occupied regions.”

Syrian Air, also known as Syrian Arab Airlines, did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent to its Moscow office. A representative of Cham Wings in Syria said the company had received Reuters questions and was working on a reply.

Georgia said last month it had started procedures to sever diplomatic relations with Syria after Damascus joined Russia in recognizing Georgian breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

Flight-tracking website showed that Cham Wings and Syrian Air flights between Syria and Russia stopped using Georgian airspace in June. They diverted instead to Georgia’s eastern neighbor Azerbaijan, adding about 30 minutes to the flight time.

Mezvrishvili said he had sent a letter to the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, which coordinates air traffic control in Europe and of which Georgia is a member, with a request not to route Cham Wings and Syrian Air flights through Georgia’s airspace.

The two are the only airlines operating direct flights between Syria and Russia. Civilian flights between the two countries had been passing through Georgia because Turkey, the most direct route, denies Syrian aircraft overflight rights.

Russia is the most powerful ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and his administration depends heavily on Russian goods and military support.

The Reuters investigation published in April found that Cham Wings charter flights from the Russian city of Rostov to Syria were transporting Russian private military contractors who are fighting for Assad's forces. here

The Kremlin says any private contractors in Syria are nothing to do with the Russian authorities. But Reuters reporters tracked busloads of men landing in Rostov on a Cham Wings flight travelling onwards to a Russian defense ministry base.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in wars in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Georgia and Russia fought a short war over South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August 2008.

After that war ended, Moscow, whose forces triumphed, recognized both regions as independent countries. The move was followed by Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and now Syria.

Additional reporting by Rinat Sagdiev and Christian Lowe in Moscow; Editing by Catherine Evans