BAGHDAD – European airlines and a Dubai-based carrier are rerouting flights over Iraqi airspace as a security precaution amid fears that militants with the Islamic State group have weapons capable of shooting down planes, despite Iraq saying its skies are safe.
A number of European carriers, including Virgin Atlantic, KLM and Air France, say they have devised alternate flight plans for their planes. Air France specifically said it detected a “potential threat” on July 24 which triggered the airline’s decision, said Eric Prevot, a spokesman for the Air France’s Flight Operations Center.
The decisions come after a Malaysia Airlines flight crashed over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine on July 17, killing all 298 people on board. U.S. and Ukrainian officials say it was shot down by a missile from rebel territory, most likely by mistake.
The Ukraine crash has many in the aviation industry reconsidering flight paths as hot spots from West Africa to Central Asia could potentially put passengers at risk. Though experts say the skies are largely safe, there is a danger of militants using sophisticated weapons.
Iraq is facing its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops amid the blitz offensive launched last month by al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State group, which captured large swaths of land in the country’s west and north, including Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.
When the group overran the cities of Mosul and Tikrit in June, Iraqi security forces virtually collapsed. In most cases, police and soldiers simply ran, abandoning arsenals of heavy weapons. Some fear the militants may have captured some sophisticated weapons, such as ground-to-air missiles capable of shooting down airplanes.
Many international commercial flights said they were continuing to fly normally over militant-held areas in western and northern Iraq until recent days, when Dubai-based Emirates publicly announced it would avoid the regions.
Air France said it is currently avoiding numerous routes over Iraq, Syria and Libya, as well as eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Amsterdam-based KLM said it stopped flying over Iraq last week, adding that it has suspend some flights to Israel in recent days as a conflict between Israelis and Hamas in the Gaza Strip enters its fourth week.
U.S. carrier Delta Air Lines has no-fly zones over Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Ukraine.
Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways said in a statement that it maintains “a set of contingencies relative to Iraq” but added that it sees “no evidence that either the capability or the intent exists to target aircraft overflying Iraq, by either side of the current conflict.”
The Iraqi government also dismissed the fears, saying that Iraqi skies and airports are safe.
“The Baghdad airport is highly secured,” said Nassir Bandar, head of the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority. “There is no threat to airplanes passing over the Iraqi skies.”
However, an airplane landing Baghdad’s airport has been targeted before. In November 2003, a missile struck a DHL cargo plane on its approach to Baghdad’s airport, forcing it to make an emergency landing with its wing aflame. A U.S. military investigation later indicated the plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile.
Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy and Fay Abuelgasim in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Elaine Ganley in Paris; David Rising and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin; Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Scott Mayerowitz in New York and Greg Katz in London contributed to this report.