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Greek Passenger Jet Arrives In Skopje After 12-Year Delay

A crew member opens the door of a Greek airliner in Skopje airport on November 1 after the first direct flight between Athens and the Macedonian capital in 12 years.

The first passenger flight between Greece and Macedonia in 12 years has landed in Skopje, in another sign of thawing relations after the two Balkan nations agreed to settle their decades-long dispute over the former Yugoslav republic’s name.

Macedonian Deputy Prime Minister Bujar Osmani, who was aboard the November 1 flight from Athens, said the new air connection "symbolizes a new strategic partnership in the region."

Under a June deal with Greece, Macedonia agreed to rename itself North Macedonia in exchange for Athens' promise to lift its objections to the country joining NATO and the European Union.

Athens says the use of the name Macedonia suggests Skopje has territorial claims to Greece's northern region of the same name.

After meeting with Greek officials in Athens, Osmani said that "Greece will be our closest ally.”

"I am now heading to the airport as we reestablish an air connection that symbolizes a new strategic partnership in the region," he added.

The minister and the other passengers on the 75-minute flight between the Greek and Macedonian capitals were handed cookies upon their arrival at International Airport Skopje.

The flight is to be operated twice weekly by Greece's Aegean Airlines.

The airliner operated flights on the route in 2003-2006 but halted the service after Macedonia changed the name of its main airport to Skopje Alexander the Great, angering nationalists in Greece where the famed ruler of the ancient Kingdom of Macedonia is also celebrated.

Early this year, the Macedonian government of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev renamed the airport International Airport Skopje to help to smooth negotiations that led to the name deal.

The agreement, seen by many as a means to more closely tie Skopje to the West and reduce Russian influence in Macedonia, has been opposed by nationalists in both countries who see it as a step toward a loss of national identity.

Despite the opposition, Macedonia’s lawmakers voted on October 19 in favor of the name change.

Amendments will now be drafted to incorporate the new name into Macedonia's constitution, after which another parliamentary vote will be required to enshrine the changes -- most likely in January.

If the name change gains final approval in Macedonia, Greece's parliament will then need to ratify the deal before it can go into effect.

With reporting by AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters, The Guardian, and RFE/RL's Balkan Service