BY LUSINE MUSAELYAN
STEPANEKERT (RFE/RL)—The longer-than-anticipated reconstruction of Nagorno-Karabakh’s sole airport is proceeding rapidly and will be over by the end of September, a senior Karabakh official said on Friday.
It remained unclear, however, just when the first commercial flights to and from Karabakh in two decades will start.
Karabakh officials said early this year that a regular flight service between Stepanakert and Yerevan will be launched in May. However, those plans were put on hold last spring amid an outcry from Azerbaijan.
Baku condemned the planned flights as illegal and threatened to shoot down aircraft entering Karabakh without its permission. But it softened its rhetoric in April following international criticism and warnings issued by the Armenian and Karabakh governments.
Karabakh leaders have insisted since then that the airport’s reopening was delayed for technical, rather than political reasons. In a recent interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service, President of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic Bako Sahakian said the airport reconstruction, initially estimated at $3 million, simply proved more costly and time-consuming than was previously thought.
Sahakian declined to give any dates for Karabakh’s renewed air communication with Armenia.
Dmitry Atbashian, the head of the local civil aviation authority, also could not say on Friday when the first passenger jet will land at the airport located 8 kilometers east of Stepanakert. He said instead that construction workers are currently putting the finishing touches on its runway and installing air traffic navigation and meteorological equipment.
“The work is progressing at a very good pace,” Atbashian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “The quality is very is good and I am content with everything.”
“It should be complete in September. Maybe in mid-September, maybe in late September,” he said.
Aicraft flights to and from the airport were discontinued in 1991 amid intensifying armed clashes in Karabakh that degenerated into a full-scale Armenian-Azerbaijani war. Transport communication between the disputed territory and the outside world has since been carried out by land, via Armenia.