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Lebanon national carrier halves flights amid fears of war

Lebanon's Middle East Airlines (MEA) planes are parked on the tarmac of Beirut International Airport in this file photo. (AFP)
Lebanon's Middle East Airlines (MEA) planes are parked on the tarmac of Beirut International Airport in this file photo. (AFP)
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21 Oct 2023 02:10:19 GMT9
21 Oct 2023 02:10:19 GMT9
  • Army chief meets US Congress delegation
  • Israel military orders evacuation of northern city after border clashes

Najia Houssari

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s national carrier, Middle East Airlines, said it was cutting more than half of its flights as tensions along the border with Israel prompted more Western countries to warn against travel to the country.

Mohammed El-Hout, chairman of MEA, said only eight of the company’s 22 planes would operate as of next week, with the rest relocated to other airports.

“More than half of the company’s flights will be canceled,” Al-Hout said in a TV interview, adding the decision came after changes to the company’s insurance coverage following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

“Insurance companies began to worry two or three days after” the attack, he said, explaining war risk coverage was reduced.

El-Hout said “we will release a dynamic flight schedule to ensure the arrival of most passengers to their destination.”

A screengrab from a video posted on X by Middle East Airlines shows Mohammed Al-Hout, chairman of the airlines’ Board of Directors, explaining the changes in flights schedules being taken as a result of the ongoing war between Hamas and Israel. (X: @MEAAIRLIBAN)

On Saturday, 10 aircraft will leave Beirut and temporarily move to other countries, including Cyprus, Turkey, and Qatar, El-Hout announced.

“Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport will maintain communication with the rest of the world. If we stop operating, other airlines will be encouraged to suspend their flights to Lebanon,” he said.

El-Hout added insurance companies began to worry about the risk of war when “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood” started, and an assessment was carried out in cooperation with them.

“I contacted the highest references in Lebanon and all the information we got indicated that the operations will remain within the conflict rules and under control in southern Lebanon rather than escalate. The element of surprise, however, remains,” he said.

“When insurance is completely canceled, we will decide what to do.”

El-Hout said: “Even if we suffer significant losses at this point, we will make up for that later, and we will get back on our feet.

“We are committed to our employees and have what it takes to overcome these events.”

Other airlines, including Swiss International Airlines and Germany’s Lufthansa, have temporarily suspended Beirut flights as Western countries urge their nationals to leave Lebanon.

Saudia has suspended flights to Lebanon until the end of this month.

Embassies of foreign and Arab countries continue to warn their nationals against remaining in or traveling to Lebanon, including Oman, Ukraine, and the Netherlands.

On Friday, Belgium became the latest country to issue a travel advisory.

“Due to the unpredictability of the situation, Belgians are asked to leave the country as quickly as possible,” said a message on the embassy’s website.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock arrived in Beirut on Friday and held talks with Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati (R) meets with the German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in Beirut on October 20, 2023. (AFP)

The implications of the conflict in the Gaza Strip for Europe’s security were discussed at the talks.

Baerbock said Germany was working closely with the G7, EU, and regional partners to ensure aid could flow into Gaza.

Also on Friday, developments along the southern Lebanese border and the challenges faced by Lebanon’s military were discussed at a meeting attended by a visiting US delegation.

Lebanese Army Commander Gen. Joseph Aoun met at his office with a delegation of assistants of US Congress members, an army statement said.

US Defense Attache Col. Aimee Mowry also joined the talks.

Areas adjacent to the Blue Line in southern Lebanon are witnessing additional mobile military operations as Hezbollah targets more Israeli outposts.

The Israeli Defense Forces said it had targeted Hezbollah’s “military infrastructure.”

Sirens have been activated at UNIFIL’s headquarters in Naqoura amid bombardments in the afternoon.

According to Israeli media reports, the IDF was chasing after a gunman who might have infiltrated Israel and opened fire toward the Margaliot settlement on the Lebanese border.

The Lebanese Armed Forces said the IDF killed a civilian member of a journalist team comprising seven people in southern Lebanon on Thursday.

The army added the team was covering the security developments in the border region in front of the Israeli outpost of Al-Abad on the outskirts of Houla.

A Lebanese woman who escaped from the south Lebanese village of Beit Lif near the Israeli border, sits with her family at a school where they took refuge in Tyre, Lebanon, on October 20, 2023. (REUTERS)

They were cornered for five hours and directly targeted with machine guns. The UNIFIL forces deployed on the Israeli side intervened to rescue them.

The victim appeared to be Mohammed Abdallah Al-Bekai — a Lebanese man driving the car transporting the team,  comprised of three Iranians from an Iranian channel, an Iraqi journalist, and three Lebanese.

In an unprecedented move, Al-Qassam Brigades — the armed wing of Hamas in Lebanon — claimed responsibility for launching 30 guided missiles from southern Lebanon toward the western Galilee settlements, namely Nahariya and Shlomi, on Thursday night.

Also on Friday, the IDF announced plans to evacuate the northern city of Kiryat Shmona near the Lebanese border.

Worshippers in Beirut and other regions protested in front of many mosques to condemn Israeli crimes against Palestinians.

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