Tuesday 20 February 2018

Fears Russian missiles fired at Syria could hit civilian passenger jets

President Vladimir Putin answers questions during an interview for Russian television in Sochi, Russia, on Saturday
President Vladimir Putin answers questions during an interview for Russian television in Sochi, Russia, on Saturday

Justin Huggler Berlin

Passenger aircraft flying over Iran, Iraq and the Caspian Sea could be in danger from long-range Russian cruise missiles aimed at Syria, international air safety agencies have warned.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) have both issued urgent bulletins to airlines warning of the risk from Russian missiles targetting sites in Syria in recent days.

Several airlines including Air France have reportedly already changed their routes to avoid the area. The fears follow the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, which crashed in Ukraine last year killing all 283 people on board. Western governments believe the Boeing 777 was shot down by Russian-backed separatists using a surface-to-air missile.

Now there are concerns long-range Russian cruise missiles fired from the Caspian Sea at targets almost 1,500km away in Syria pose a new danger to civilian flights. "Before reaching Syria, such missiles are necessarily crossing the airspace above Caspian Sea, Iran and Iraq, below flight routes which are used by commercial transport airplanes," EASA said in a bulletin to airlines.

The United Nations air safety agency, ICAO, has reportedly sent formal letters to Russia, Turkey and Iran asking them about any potential threats to civil aviation.

Aviation authorities have not issued any directives to airlines to avoid the area, but several airlines are believed to have switched to flying over Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Air France has already changed some of its routes rather than risk running into any of the missiles, according to Germany's 'Welt' newspaper.

Changing routes can be expensive for airlines as it results in considerably longer flight times and heavier fuel use. But Malaysian Airlines came in for criticism after the downing of MH17 because it had continued to fly over the Ukraine-Russia border despite warnings.

Cruise missiles generally fly at extremely low altitudes of under 600ft in order to avoid radar detection, far below the typical cruising altitude of most airliners at around 30,000 to 40,000ft. But any collision could have catastrophic consequences, and there have already been claims - denied by the Kremlin - that four of the Russian missiles have gone off course and landed in Iran.

Russia says the missile strikes are part of an operation aimed against Isil. But the West has accused it of also targetting rebel groups opposed to Isil in an attempt to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Separately yesterday, Russian president Vladimir Putin ruled out deploying ground troops in Syria, but said air strikes would continue until a "political solution" can be found.

Last night, Saudi Arabia warned that Russia's military intervention in Syria will have dangerous consequences, escalate the war there and merely inspire militants from around the world to participate.

But Saudi Arabia will continue to strengthen and support the moderate opposition in Syria, a government source said, citing positions outlined by Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman and Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in meetings with Mr Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The Saudis also appealed to Russia to help fight terrorism in Syria by joining the already established anti-Isil coalition that comprises more than 20 nations, and reiterated Mr Assad must quit as part of a peace process.

The intervention has put Moscow on a collision course with regional powers including Turkey, which insists Assad must resign as part of any political settlement.

Mr Lavrov said after the meeting that both sides had agreed to seek a "political solution."

"The two parties confirmed that Saudi Arabia and Russia have similar objectives when it comes to Syria. Above all, it is to not let a terrorist caliphate take over the country," Mr Lavrov said after the meeting.

"After talks, we understand better how to move toward a political solution," he said.

"We expressed our concerns that these operations could be regarded as an alliance between Iran and Russia," said Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister. "But our Russian friends explained to us that the main aim is the fight with Isil and terrorism," he added. (© Daily Telegraph London)


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