STEPANAKERT -- The breakaway Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh's sole civilian airport will reopen in May to operate the first commercial flights between the disputed area and Armenia in nearly 20 years, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.
Dmitry Atbashian, head of the local civil aviation authority, said on January 26 that an airline company has been set up to carry out those daily flights.
Flights to and from the airport, located 8 kilometers east of Stepanakert, were discontinued in 1991 amid intensifying armed clashes in and around Karabakh that degenerated into a full-scale Armenian-Azerbaijani war.
Transport communication between the territory and the outside world has since been carried out by land, via Armenia.
The Karabakh government decided in 2009 to reopen the airport, severely damaged
during the 1991-1992 war, and raised about 1 billion drams ($2.8 million) for its reconstruction from unspecified "charitable sources."
Armenian-Karabakh officials said afterwards that a regular flight service between Stepanakert and Yerevan could be launched in October 2010. However, its launch was delayed by a longer-than-anticipated construction of a new airport terminal.
Atbashian said the construction work is nearing completion, and air navigation and other equipment is already being installed at the airport. The facility will be fully furnished by April, he said.
Atbashian assured journalists that flight security "will be ensured 100 percent" despite the airport's proximity to the heavily militarized "line of contact" separating Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. He warned Azerbaijan against attempting to disrupt the flights.
The Azerbaijani government has not officially reacted to the planned reopening of the Stepanakert airport, though is expected to condemn the development.
Atbashian stressed that security in and around the airport building will be "twice as tight" as at Yerevan's Zvartnots airport because of what he described as a potential threat of "terrorist acts." "We are located in a dangerous zone," he said.
Atbashian also revealed that the Stepanakert-Yerevan flights will be carried out by a newly established Armenian-Karabakh airline called Artsakh Air. He said its fleet of aircraft will consist of three Canadian-made CRJ200 passenger jets costing about $15 million each. The official did not say who is financing their purchase.
It also emerged that a roundtrip air ticket to the Armenian capital will likely cost between 18,000 and 21,500 drams ($50-$60). By comparison, the current fare for a minibus trip from Stepanakert to Yerevan, which takes between six and seven hours, is 5,000 drams.