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Nagorno-Karabakh Flights On Hold Despite Airport Reconstruction

STEPANAKERT -- The launch of the first commercial flights to the breakaway Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh in two decades has been postponed indefinitely, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

Armenian-Karabakh authorities in Stepanakert are now refusing to announce any dates for the official reopening of the newly rebuilt airport located eight kilometers east of the region's capital.

With its $3 million reconstruction nearly completed early this year, Nagorno-Karabakh officials announced that the airport would reopen its doors on May 9 for an inaugural flight from Yerevan.

Azerbaijan condemned the plans as illegal and threatened to shoot down aircraft entering Karabakh without its permission.

Leaders of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) and Armenian officials dismissed the threats, saying the airport would be inaugurated as planned. President Serzh Sarkisian said in late March that he would board the first Yerevan-Stepanakert flight since 1991.

The Azerbaijani threats were also denounced by the United States and other foreign powers trying to broker a peaceful solution to the Karabakh dispute.

Baku appeared to back away from them in early April, with an Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman saying that it "did not and will not use force against civil facilities."

Still, the U.S., Russian, and French mediators co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group warned later in April that the airport reopening "could lead to further increased tensions" in the conflict zone.

Karabakh leaders have since claimed that a flight between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia was never scheduled to take place on May 9. They have also pointedly declined to clarify when flights at the airport would be launched.

"I find it difficult to answer that question," airport director Artur Karapetian told RFE/RL on May 13. "We don't set dates, we just work."

Karapetian confirmed that the small airport's new terminal has already been fully constructed, furnished, and equipped with navigation devices. But he said "some construction work" still needs to be done on the runway.

In a January interview with RFE/RL, the head of Karabakh's civil aviation authority, Dmitry Atbashian, said the planned flights will be made by three Canadian-made CRJ200 passenger jets. He said two of them will be delivered to Karabakh by the end of April.

Karapetian said, however, that the Karabakh-Armenian leadership still has not purchased any civil aircraft. "As of yet we have no airplanes that belong to us."

"Generally speaking, in civil aviation you don't need to necessarily have your own aircraft. You can carry out flights with the help of other airlines," he said.