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Moves to reopen Basra airport for humanitarian aid

[Iraq] Basra airport reopens.
Concern over continuing violence in Basra, despite presence of British troops (IRIN)

Moves are being made to reopen Basra International Airport just outside Iraq’s second largest city, something which would expedite the delivery of aid to the country's southern regions by between one and two weeks.

"Getting the airport open is extremely significant, because humanitarian aid and workers will be able to come direct instead of going through Kuwait, and it is also symbolic in terms of the start of getting aid into Iraq without having to pass through a third country," Daniel Ruiz, the head of the United Nations Joint Logistics Centre (JLC) in southern Iraq, said on Wednesday. The JLC had been pushing for two weeks to have the airport reopened, he said.

At the end of last week, emergency dredging of Umm Qasr port began to enable it to receive most of Iraq’s food and bulk items. But the dredging is being done painstakingly because of the danger of unexploded ordnance in the mud beneath.

Basra airport is the second key entry point to the south, and is considered vital for the delivery of technical and electronic goods, emergency items, as well as specialist medicines or those with short shelf lives, like vaccines.

Currently, aid agencies have to fly supplies into Kuwait airport and truck them across the border into southern Iraq. The Kuwaiti authorities have waived landing fees and taxes, and charging only 50 percent of the normal handling costs on goods arriving.

But the process of clearing the goods is taking far too long, say many humanitarian workers. They add that the newly opened border with Iraq does not have the infrastructure in place to cope with the rush of humanitarian assistance and that truck drivers and personnel often have to wait up to a week to obtain Kuwaiti visas to enter the country.

"The Kuwaitis have put in place a number of initiatives in order to facilitate entry of humanitarian personnel and supplies into Kuwait," Captain Natasha Coxen, Operations Officer in the Humanitarian Operations Centre, (HOC) established jointly by the United States and the Government of Kuwait, said. "It hasn’t always been smooth but they have always taken action to sort out any problems encountered and will continue to do so."

So far only one aircraft carrying aid, a Virgin Atlantic Boeing-747, has landed at Basra airport. The main obstacle to others doing so is one of insurance. Any aircraft landing at present were required to sign an insurance waiver stating that if they were fired on the coalition forces were not liable, said Ruiz. Despite the fact that the war is over, liability issues remained unresolved.

The World Food Programme (WFP) had definite plans to use Basra airport, said Russell Ulrey, a WFP emergency coordinator. WFP had succeeded in arranging a first flight to Arbil in northern Iraq on Tuesday. He added, however, that he did not know when WFP would be able to start using Basra for the southern regions.

Meanwhile, the British Royal Air Force, who are stationed at the airport, say they and the runway are ready to accept humanitarian flights and will soon be able to offer more storage space. "We’ve had only one humanitarian flight in - Virgin, but that was a chance to do something and to be seen to do something. Because of that we suspect we will see more," said RAF Sqn-Ldr Gary Brown. At the most, they could accept one 747 jet every two hours, he added.

Ruiz said he expected a jet to fly in with supplies every two days, once things got going. "It has always been a strategic and military objective to secure the airport and open it. That and reopening the port at Umm Qasr were always on the list of things to do," said Brown.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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