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As Assad advances, Syria launches commercial airline

Source: Reuters - Wed, 26 Mar 2014 14:16 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Airline's debut flight delayed twice, now set for May

* Plans to fly to 10 destinations in Middle East

* Launch reflects firm Assad grip on capital

By Oliver Holmes

BEIRUT, March 26 (Reuters) - A new Syrian airline plans to start flights from the war-torn country in May, a company manager told Reuters on Wednesday, following months of gains on the battlefield by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

The launch of Kinda Airlines, a private company, illustrates how Assad has been able - in part - to weather the three-year conflict, securing the capital and areas of the Mediterranean coast even as rebels advance in the north and east.

Esmail Sharaf, Vice Commercial Manager, told Reuters that Kinda Airlines will operate out of Damascus International airport and the coastal city of Latakia. It aims to fly to more than 10 destinations within a year, including the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iraq, and "hopefully Lebanon and Jordan".

He said the company had registered a Boeing 737-400 from Jordan Aviation and signed a contract for an Airbus 320 with Aeolus Air, a company registered in Gambia and with offices in the United Arab Emirates.

Syria's civil war has killed over 140,000 people since it started in 2011 as a peaceful protest movement against four decades of Assad family rule. Rebels have taken several military airports and last year fired on Damascus International airport.

Sharaf said there had been a lot of demand for a second carrier other than the national airline Syrianair, which he said had flown out of Damascus throughout the conflict.

"Damascus (airport) has been very safe in the last six or seven months," he said in a telephone interview.

Kinda Airlines' debut flight was first scheduled for January. It was delayed until April 1 and again, Sharaf said, until May 1 due to "documents that are not ready and some paperwork inside Syria."

The startup has also had to deal with wide-ranging European Union, Arab League and U.S. sanctions on Syria. Syrianair has had to ground planes in the past when it was unable to buy new parts for its fleet.

"(Sanctions are) making it very, very difficult. Hopefully we have passed through all these difficulties," Sharaf said.

Syrianair maintained a 40-year monopoly until 2008, when parliament approved the creation of Syrian Pearl Airways (SPA), a venture by Rami Makhlouf, Assad's maternal cousin, who is under sanctions.

SPA closed only a month after it launched when the Spanish company which leased its planes had to terminate contracts due to U.S. sanctions.

Sharaf said Kinda Airlines' three main shareholders were all private Syrian citizens. (Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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