Middle East tensions reach boiling point

THE United Arab Emirates claims Qatari fighter jets intercepted two of its commercial airliners in international airspace on the way to Bahrain,

Qatar denies the allegations but the claims could further escalate tensions between Qatar and the four Arab nations that have been boycotting it for months, among them the UAE, home to the world's busiest international airport.

They also could affect long-haul airline travel, as the region's carriers are a crucial link between the East and West. It follows two complaints by Qatar to the United Nations about Emirati military aircraft allegedly violating its international airspace amid the diplomatic crisis. The UAE denies the allegations.

The UAE's state-run WAM news agency made the claim about the Qatari jet fighters on Monday, citing the country's General Civil Aviation Authority. WAM quoted Saif al-Suwaidi, the director-general of the GCAA, as saying the intercepts happened at 10:30am and 11am. He said Bahraini radar, as well as crew and passengers on board, saw the military aircraft, "which constituted a clear and explicit threat to the lives of innocent civilians."

WAM did not identify the aircraft involved, nor did it elaborate on details of the purported encounters. The GCAA did not immediately respond to questions from The Associated Press.

Qatar's Foreign Ministry called the UAE's allegations a "totally false claim" in a statement last night.

"It seems that the UAE is trying to draw attention away from other incidents that have caused media crises," it said. That appeared to reference a video released Sunday night of an exiled Qatari ruling family member, once promoted by Saudi Arabia as an alternative to the country's ruling emir, claiming he's being held against his will in the UAE, an allegation denied by Abu Dhabi.

The video of Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Al Thani recalled the bizarre, now-reversed resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri while on a trip to Saudi Arabia, a Nov. 4 decision that was widely seen as orchestrated by Riyadh.

The UAE is home to two major national carriers, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad and Dubai-based Emirates. Both airlines declined to comment when reached by the AP, though Bahrain's Foreign Ministry identified one of the affected aircraft as Emirates flight No. EK837.

That flight was scheduled to depart Dubai at 8:20am. Monday, but pushed off nearly an hour late.

It flew out over international waters near the northern tip of Qatar, a peninsular nation that juts out like a thumb into the Persian Gulf, before arriving in the island nation of Bahrain 46 minutes after takeoff. That's been the standard route of all Emirati commercial airliners since the crisis began.

FlightRadar24, a popular aeroplane tracking website, did not show any unusual routes between the UAE and Bahrain. "There appears to be no deviation from standard routing and approach patterns in today's flights," FlightRadar24 spokesman Ian Petchenik told the AP.

FlyDubai, a low-cost carrier owned by Dubai's government, said its aircraft were not involved in the incidents. Sharjah-based Air Arabia, another budget carrier that operates direct flights to Bahrain International Airport in Manama, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Donald Trump has offered to mediate the dispute. Source: AFP.
Donald Trump has offered to mediate the dispute. Source: AFP.

U.S. Air Force Central Command, which is based at the sprawling al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, did not have any reports of incidents involving commercial aircraft in the region, said Lt. Colonel Damien Pickart, an Air Force spokesman. However, Pickart cautioned that U.S. forces don't routinely monitor the flights and operations of the Qatari air force.

Qatar's stock exchange dropped some 2.5 per cent in trading Monday, one of its biggest jolts since the crisis began.

Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE cut off Qatar's land, sea and air routes on June 5 over its alleged support of extremists and close ties with Iran.

Qatar has long denied funding extremists. It recently restored full diplomatic relations with Iran, with which it shares a massive offshore natural gas field that makes the country and its 250,000 citizens extremely wealthy. The crisis has hurt Qatar Airways, Doha's long-haul carrier that competes with Emirates and Etihad.

Qatar had complained to the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organisation about the boycotting nations cutting off its air routes, forcing the carrier to take longer flights through Iran and Turkey. Its regional feeder flights in Saudi Arabia and the UAE also have been cut off.

However, widening the Gulf dispute to include civilian aviation and airspace could hurt Emirati airlines already stung by U.S. President Donald Trump's travel bans, as well as last year's since-lifted ban on laptops in aeroplane cabins.

Qatar earlier accused Emirati military jets of violating its air space in December and January in two incidents, filing a complaint to the United Nations. Anwar Gargash, the Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, wrote Friday on Twitter that Qatar's airspace complaints were "incorrect and confused," without elaborating.

Qatar's ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, meanwhile travelled Monday to Ankara to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish officials said Erdogan and Al Thani discussed bilateral ties and regional issues over a two-and-a-half-hour meeting, without offering specifics.



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