YEREVAN -- Azerbaijan has threatened to shoot down civilian planes flying to Nagorno-Karabakh if the sole civilian airport in the disputed region reopens as planned.
The Karabakh Armenian leadership dismissed the threat, saying that the first commercial flights between the territory and Armenia in two decades would start as planned in May.
Arif Mammadov, the director of Azerbaijan's Civil Aviation Administration, said the Azerbaijani government warned the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) last October that it did not authorize any flights to Karabakh.
"We notified that the airspace over Karabakh is closed," Mammadov said, according to the APA news agency. "The law on aviation envisages the physical destruction of airplanes landing in that territory."
Mammadov said Baku sent another letter to the ICAO recently warning that the disputed region's airspace was closed and "at the disposal of Azerbaijan's Air Force."
"We asked the ICAO to notify the opposing side in order to prevent negative incidents," he said, adding that the Montreal-based body forwarded that letter to Armenia.
Bako Sahakian, the president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic, condemned the threat and warned through a spokesman that any attempt to thwart the planned flights would meet with an "adequate response" from the Karabakh Armenian military.
"If Azerbaijan resorts to such actions, it will trigger unpredictable developments," Sahakian's press secretary, Davit Babayan, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service.
"Such threats do not scare us, they only discredit Azerbaijan," Babayan said. "We will go ahead with exploiting our airport as planned."
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 1991-94 war. Its $3 million reconstruction is now nearing completion.
A regular flight service between Stepanakert and Yerevan is scheduled to be launched on May 9, a public holiday in Karabakh that will mark the 19th anniversary of a major military victory over Azerbaijan.
Dmitry Atbashian, head of the local civil aviation authority, assured journalists earlier this year 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.
Atbashian also announced that the Stepanakert-Yerevan flights would be carried out by a newly established Karabakh airline, Artsakh Air. He said its fleet of aircraft would consist of three Canadian-made CRJ200 passenger jets.
Nagorno-Karabakh is an Armenian-majority enclave located inside Azerbaijani territory.
Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a six-year war over the territory that ended with an uneasy cease-fire in 1994. But its final status has never been resolved, and frequent skirmishes are reported between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops.