March 29, 2018 / 5:09 PM / 4 months ago

U.N. aviation agency eyes talks, meeting to defuse Gulf airspace standoff

MONTREAL/DUBAI (Reuters) - The United Nations’ aviation agency is trying to facilitate talks between Qatar and its neighbours to defuse tensions over alleged airspace violations, but will not intervene politically in the dispute, two sources familiar with the matter said this week.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is working to organise a regional meeting for Gulf civil aviation and air traffic authorities in the next few weeks, as part of broader efforts to improve communication, one of the sources said.

Earlier this week, the United Arab Emirates accused Qatari fighter jets of flying dangerously close to two of its civilian aircraft, the latest of several incidents raising tension in the region.

“Sometimes if you’re having a feud with your neighbour you need someone to facilitate the conversation,” the source said.

Montreal-based ICAO cannot impose binding rules on governments, but wields clout through its safety and security standards which are approved by its 192 member states.

ICAO spokesman Anthony Philbin said by email that the agency is “presently monitoring these incidents and working with all of the countries concerned to help keep the skies in this part of the world open, safe, and secure.”

ICAO’s governing council, however, is not planning to intervene in these latest disputes over airspace infringement, said the second source.

Improving communication is key because Qatar has limited airspace and is part of Bahrain’s Flight Information Region, the first source said.

Both aviation industry sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are confidential. Bahraini, Qatari, and UAE officials could not be reached for comment.

Since January, the Gulf states have traded accusations over infringements of their respective airspace. In June 2017, the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt cut political, economic and transport ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting Islamist extremists. Qatar denies the accusations.

The dispute has the potential to disrupt flights in a region with millions of travellers each year. Qatar Airways has flown longer routes since the UAE blocked it from its airspace.

A passenger jet belonging to Dubai’s Emirates, the region’s biggest airline, was involved in a January incident when two Qatari air force jets allegedly flew dangerously close.

Doha denies the allegations.

In June, ICAO’s governing council is expected to hear arguments by the Gulf states over the boycott, which Qatar is challenging, said the second source.

ICAO last year helped Qatar Airways access contingency routes over international waters.

Reporting by Allison Lampert and Alexander Cornwell; editing by Bernadette Baum and David Gregorio

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