Team activated to support global airline safety as Middle East tensions rise

Team activated to support global airline safety as Middle East tensions rise
By Allison Lampert

MONTREAL (Reuters) – An international aviation team has been activated to support “effective coordination and communication” between airlines and countries as tensions mount in the Middle East after a U.S. drone strike killed an Iranian military commander, global airlines body IATA said on Tuesday.

Airlines and the United Nations’ aviation agency have started to monitor strategic airspace over Iran and Iraq. With some commercial carriers still serving those countries and others flying over their airspace, the International Air Transport Association also issued a statement reminding countries of their obligation to communicate potential risks to civil aviation.

“It is critical that states live up to this obligation as tensions in the Middle East rise,” the group said, days after the killing of General Qassem Soleimani on Friday plunged the region into a new crisis.

On Monday, Germany published a new warning for Iraq, indicating areas of concern for overflying traffic, according to a report published by the site OPSGROUP.

The coordination team operated by IATA and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was activated as a “standard precautionary measure,” in the event that contingency measures are required by airlines, IATA said in a statement to Reuters.

The team brings together airlines, regulators and air navigation service providers to ensure any potential risks to aviation are shared quickly, an industry source familiar with the group said.

“Everyone’s urging restraint,” said the source who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Carriers are increasingly taking steps to uncover threats to their planes after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down in 2014 by a missile over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.

Airspace controlled by Iran and Iraq are seen as strategic for commercial aviation in the Middle East. If there were the need to shut down the airspace, carriers would have to be rerouted which would lead to greater congestion and fuel costs, said the source.

(Reporting By Allison Lampert in Montreal; Editing by David Gregorio)

First Russian-Chinese air patrol in Asia-Pacific draws shots from South Korea

A Russian TU-95 bomber flies over East China Sea in this handout picture taken by Japan Air Self-Defence Force and released by the Joint Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan July 23, 2019. Joint Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan/HANDOUT via REUTERS

By Andrew Osborn and Joyce Lee

MOSCOW/SEOUL (Reuters) – Russia carried out what it said was its first long-range joint air patrol in the Asia-Pacific region with China on Tuesday, a mission that triggered hundreds of warning shots, according to South Korean officials, and a strong protest from Japan.

The flight by two Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers and two Chinese H-6 bombers, backed up according to Korean and Japanese officials by a Russian A-50 early warning plane, marks a notable ramping-up of military cooperation between Beijing and Moscow.

That is something likely to worry politicians from Washington to Tokyo and could complicate relations and raise tension in a region that has for years been overshadowed by hostility between the United States and North Korea.

While troops and naval ships from Russia and China have taken part in joint war games before, they have not, according to Russia’s Ministry of Defence, conducted such air patrols in the Asia-Pacific region together until Tuesday.

“The joint patrol was carried out with the aim of deepening Russian-Chinese relations within our all-encompassing partnership, of further increasing cooperation between our armed forces, and of perfecting their capabilities to carry out joint actions and of strengthening global strategic security,” the ministry said in a statement.

Seoul and Tokyo, who both scrambled jets to intercept the Russo-Chinese mission, accused Russia and China of violating their airspaces, an allegation Moscow and Beijing denied.

South Korean warplanes fired hundreds of warning shots towards the Russian A-50 military aircraft, defense officials in Seoul said, saying it had entered South Korean airspace.

It was the first time a Russian military aircraft had violated South Korean airspace, an official at the South Korean Ministry of National Defence said in Seoul.

The Russian and Chinese bombers had entered the Korea Air Defence Identification Zone (KADIZ) together early on Tuesday, the South Korean defense ministry said.

The separate Russian A-50 airborne early warning and control aircraft later twice violated South Korean airspace over Dokdo – an island that is controlled by Seoul and claimed by both South Korea and Japan, which calls it Takeshima – just after 9 a.m. (midnight GMT Monday), according to the South Korean military.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said it did not recognize South Korea’s KADIZ, while the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the area was not territorial airspace and that all countries enjoyed freedom of movement in it.

South Korean fighters did not fire any warning shots toward Russia’s two bombers, the Russian defense ministry said in a statement, which made no mention of any A-50 aircraft.

It accused the two South Korean F-16 fighter planes of carrying out “unprofessional maneuvers” and of crossing the path of the Russian bombers and not communicating with them.

“It was not the first time that South Korean pilots tried unsuccessfully to prevent Russian aircraft from flying over the neutral waters of the Sea of ​​Japan,” the Russian ministry said.

If the Russian pilots had felt any threat to their safety, their response would have been swift, it added.

A South Korean defense ministry spokesman did not directly address the Russian accusation of reckless behavior but said that South Korea had never said the Tu-95 bombers had violated its airspace.

South Korea’s top security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, lodged a strong objection with Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council, asking the council to assess the incident and take appropriate action, South Korea’s presidential office said.

“We take a very grave view of this situation and, if it is repeated, we will take even stronger action,” Chung said, according to South Korea’s presidential office.

“TACTICAL ACTION”

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry summoned Russian Deputy Chief of Mission Maxim Volkov and Chinese Ambassador Qiu Guohong to lodge a stern protest and strongly urge them to prevent a recurrence, said ministry spokesman Kim In-chul.

Separately, Japan, which said it had also scrambled fighter aircraft to intercept the Russian and Chinese planes, lodged a complaint with both South Korea and Russia over the incident, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

Tokyo criticized South Korea for taking action against a Russian plane over what Japan says is its airspace.

“In light of Japan’s stance regarding sovereignty over Takeshima, the fact that the South Korean military aircraft carried out warning shots is totally unacceptable and extremely regrettable,” Suga told reporters.

The South Korean jets loosed about 360 rounds of ammunition during the incident, an official at South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said.

“The South Korean military took tactical action including dropping flares and firing warning shots,” the South Korean Defence Ministry said.

A South Korean defense official told Reuters that the Russian aircraft did not respond in any threatening way.

It left South Korean airspace but then entered it again about 20 minutes later, prompting the South Koreans to fire more warning shots.

(Additional reporting by Josh Smith in Seoul, by Kiyoshi Takenaka, Makiko Yamazaki and Tim Kelly in Tokyo, Cate Cadell in Beijing, and Maria Kiselyova and Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Editing by Paul Tait and Mark Heinrich)

Braced for air strikes on Syria, some airlines re-route flights

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Eurocontrol, Europe's air traffic regulator, is seen on the facade of its headquarters in Brussels July 18, 2014. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

By Jamie Freed

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Some major airlines were re-routing flights on Wednesday after Europe’s air traffic control agency warned aircraft flying in the eastern Mediterranean to exercise caution due to possible air strikes into Syria.

Eurocontrol said in a notification published on Tuesday afternoon that air-to-ground and cruise missiles could be used over the following 72 hours and there was a possibility of intermittent disruption to radio navigation equipment.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Western allies are discussing possible military action to punish Syria’s President Bashar Assad for a suspected poison gas attack on Saturday on a rebel-held town that had long held out against government forces.

A spokeswoman for Air France said the airline had changed some flights paths following the warning, including for Beirut and Tel Aviv flights, while budget airline easyJet said it would also re-route flights from Tel Aviv.

Aviation regulators have been stepping up monitoring of conflict zones since Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was downed by a surface-to-air missile over Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 people on board.

Recent warnings have tended to be after military action has started, and so Eurocontrol’s pre-emptive notice suggests a heightening of regulatory scrutiny.

Trump on Tuesday cancelled a planned trip to Latin America later this week to focus on responding to the Syria incident, the White House said.

Trump on Monday warned of a quick, forceful response once responsibility for the attack was established.

The Eurocontrol warning on its website did not specify the origin of any potential missile threat.

“Due to the possible launch of air strikes into Syria with air-to-ground and/or cruise missiles within the next 72 hours, and the possibility of intermittent disruption of radio navigation equipment, due consideration needs to be taken when planning flight operations in the Eastern Mediterranean/Nicosia FIR area,” it said, referring to the designated airspace.

Aviation regulators in countries including the United States, Britain, France and Germany have previously issued warnings against airlines entering Syrian airspace, leading most carriers to avoid the area.

The only commercial flights above Syria as of 0115 GMT on Wednesday were being flown by Syrian Air and Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines, according to flight tracking website FlightRadar24. At other periods later in the day, there were no flights using the airspace.

HEIGHTENED SURVEILLANCE

Eurocontrol included a broader area outside the airspace controlled by Damascus in its statement.

A spokesman for Germany’s Lufthansa said on Wednesday its airlines were aware of the Eurocontrol warning and were in close contact with authorities.

“As a proactive precaution, Lufthansa Group airlines have already avoided the airspace in the eastern Mediterranean for some time now,” he said.

Ryanair, British Airways, Etihad Airways, and Royal Jordanian representatives said flights were operating normally at their respective airlines, but the situation was being monitored closely.

Emirates also said it was closely monitoring the situation and that it would “make adjustments as needed”.

EgyptAir is not currently planning changes to flight paths following the warning, a source close to the matter said.

Israel’s flag carrier El Al declined to comment. EgyptAir and several other major airlines that fly in the area did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

The Nicosia flight information region named in the Eurocontrol statement covers the island of Cyprus and surrounding waters, according to a map on the agency’s website.

The same map did not designate any specific territory as being the “Eastern Mediterranean” region.

Last year, North Korea tested missiles without warning, leading some airlines to re-route flights to avoid portions of the Sea of Japan.

Eurocontrol’s warning cited a document from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), Europe’s safety regulator.

EASA warned of a danger to aircraft flying over Iran, Iraq, and the Caspian sea in October 2015 after Russia fired cruise missiles at Syrian targets from the Caspian Sea.

An EASA spokesman said it had informed member states and Eurocontrol of its cautionary message on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Jamie Freed in SINGAPORE; additional reporting by Victoria Bryan in HAMBURG, Alexander Cornwell in DUBAI, Sarah Young in LONDON, Conor Humphries in DUBLIN, Tova Cohen in Tel Aviv and CAIRO Bureau; Editing by Robert Birsel, Mark Potter and David Evans)

Saudi crown prince says Israelis have right to their own land

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud is seen during a meeting with U.N Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the United Nations headquarters in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S. March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Levy/File Photo

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s crown prince said Israelis are entitled to live peacefully on their own land in an interview published on Monday in U.S. magazine The Atlantic, another public sign of ties between Riyadh and Tel Aviv appearing to grow closer.

Asked if he believes the Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in at least part of their ancestral homeland, Mohammed bin Salman was quoted as saying:

“I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land. But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations.”

Saudi Arabia – birthplace of Islam and home to its holiest shrines – does not recognize Israel. It has maintained for years that normalizing relations hinges on Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands captured in the 1967 Middle East war, territory Palestinians seek for a future state.

“We have religious concerns about the fate of the holy mosque in Jerusalem and about the rights of the Palestinian people. This is what we have. We don’t have any objection against any other people,” Prince Mohammed said.

Increased tension between Tehran and Riyadh has fueled speculation that shared interests may push Saudi Arabia and Israel to work together against what they see as a common Iranian threat.

Saudi Arabia opened its airspace for the first time to a commercial flight to Israel last month, which an Israeli official hailed as historic following two years of efforts.

In November, an Israeli cabinet member disclosed covert contacts with Saudi Arabia, a rare acknowledgment of long-rumored secret dealings which Riyadh still denies.

(Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

U.S. Drone enters Iran’s airspace, leaves after warning

A model of a military drone is seen in front of an U.S. flag as protesters rally against climate change, ahead of the Democratic National Convention, in Philadelphia

ANKARA (Reuters) – Iran’s military detected a U.S. drone entering Iranian airspace on Monday and issued a warning for it to leave, which it subsequently did, Iran’s Tasnim news agency reported.

“Iran’s army air defense detected and warned an American drone in the eastern airspace of the country. It was coming from Afghanistan. The drone left the area,” Tasnim quoted the Iranian military as saying.

Tasnim gave no details on how the Iranian authorities had warned the unmanned drone to leave its airspace.

A U.S. defense official said last week that four of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) vessels ‘harassed’ a U.S. warship on Tuesday near the Strait of Hormuz.

Tehran said the ships had only been carrying out their regular duties monitoring foreign ships near Iranian waters.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by William Maclean and Toby Chopra)

NATO Will Defend Turkey As Russian Military Escalation Continues in Syria

On Thursday, NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg stated that NATO is ready to deploy forces in order to defend alliance member Turkey.

The statement comes days after Turkey reported that Russia had violated its airspace twice and approximately a week since Russia began airstrikes in Syria. NATO defense ministers are planning to meet in Brussels today regarding Russia’s military escalation in Syria.

“Nato is ready and able to defend all allies, including Turkey against any threats,” Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general, told reporters before the Brussels meeting.

“In Syria, we have seen a troubling escalation of Russian military activities. We will assess the latest developments and their implications for the security of the alliance. This is particularly relevant in view of the recent violations of Nato’s airspace by Russian aircraft.

“Nato has already responded by increasing our capacity, our ability, our preparedness to deploy forces including to the south, including in Turkey.”

Stoltenberg also announced that NATO has already taken steps in order to defend Turkey if needed. The NATO Response Force has been doubled to 40,000, and NATO is reviewing its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, where Russian forces already have a small naval flotilla off the Syrian coast.

Moscow continues to deny Western accusations that their military presence in Syria is to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia insists their presence in Syria is to only fight the Islamic State. However, Russian airstrikes have mostly targeted areas that are controlled by Syrian rebels, not ISIS.

Turkey Intercepts Russian Fighter Plane for Airspace Violation

Tensions are rising between Turkey and Russia as officials reported on Monday that Syria had intercepted a Russian fighter plane after it violated Turkish airspace near the Syrian border.

The incident occurred Saturday in the Yaladagi region of Turkey’s southern Hatay province. The Russian plane was intercepted by two F-16s of the Turkish air force. Immediately after the situation, Turkey summoned Russia’s ambassador to protest the violation and warn Russia not to repeat the same mistake in order to keep the situation from escalating.

The Anadolu news agency quoted Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu: “Whoever violates our airspace, our rules of engagement are clear,” he said. “We will warn whoever violates our borders and our airspace in a friendly manner. This country can be whichever and Russia is our neighbor, our friend. In this way, there is no tension between Turkey and Russia. The Syria issue is not a Turkish-Russian crisis,” he said.

However, Turkey and Russia are at odds in Syria concerning their position on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey believes al-Assad should step down from his position for the conflict to end while Russia supports al-Assad.

NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, met Davutoglu on Monday. He stated that the Russian violation of Turkish airspace was unacceptable and an emergency meeting regarding the issue would take place later in the day.

“Russia’s actions are not contributing to the security and stability of the region,” Stoltenberg said. “I call on Russia to fully respect Nato airspace and to avoid escalating tensions.”

U.S. officials believe the Turkish airspace violation was deliberate and the kind of unpredictable act they have feared since Russia began building up its military presence in Syria last month.

“I don’t believe this was an accident,” said a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss deliberations with Turkey and other NATO allies. “This is exactly the type of unprofessional, non-professional incident we were hoping to avoid.”

According to Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia is currently looking into reports of the violation, but at this time, Russia has made no further comment regarding the issue.