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Published: Saturday July 19, 2014 MYT 6:05:02 PM
Updated: Saturday July 19, 2014 MYT 6:06:07 PM

Afghanistan worried about safety of its airspace after Ukraine crash

KABUL (Reuters) - 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 normally.

"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.

STRATEGIC LOCATION

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 email.

"(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)

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