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Saudi Arabia grants airspace approval for commercial flights to Israel

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TEL AVIV — Saudi Arabia has granted its airspace for the first time to a commercial flight to Israel with the inauguration on Thursday of an Air India route between New Delhi and Tel Aviv.

Air India 139 landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport after a flight of over 7-1/2 hours, marking a diplomatic shift for Riyadh that Israel says was fueled by shared concern over Iranian influence in the region.

“This is a really historic day that follows two years of very, very intensive work,” Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said in a radio interview, adding that using Saudi airspace cut travel time to India by around two hours and would reduce ticket prices.

Saudi Arabia — birthplace of Islam and home to its holiest shrines — does not recognize Israel.

Riyadh has not formally confirmed granting the Air India plane overflight rights. While the move ended a 70-year-old ban on planes flying to or from Israel through Saudi airspace, there is as yet no indication that it will be applied for any Israeli airline.

The Air India Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner entered Saudi airspace at around 1645 GMT and overflew the kingdom at 40,000 feet for about three hours, coming within 60 km (37 miles) of the capital Riyadh, according to the Flightradar monitoring app. It then crossed over Jordan and the occupied West Bank into Israel.

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The airliner had earlier flown over Oman, according to Flightradar. Officials from Oman, which also does not recognize Israel, could not be reached for comment.

Israel’s flag carrier El Al, excluded from the Saudi route, says its Indian competitor now has an unfair advantage.

El Al currently flies four times a week to the Indian city of Mumbai. Those flights take around 7 hours and 40 minutes, following a Red Sea route that swings toward Ethiopia to avoid Saudi airspace.

If El Al planes were to fly on to New Delhi, a destination El Al has said it might be interested in, they would require another two hours – and significantly more fuel.

Interviewed on Israel’s Army Radio, Levin voiced confidence that El Al would eventually be allowed to use Saudi airspace.

“You know, they said the Saudis wouldn’t let any flight pass. So here, the Saudis are permitting it. It is a process, I think. Ultimately this (El Al overflights) will happen too,” he said.

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China conduct live fire drill along southeast coastline

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BEIJING — China’s military has conducted live-fire drills along the southeast coastline, state television reported, but it was unclear if these were the same exercises that had been flagged as taking place in the sensitive Taiwan Strait.

The government had said the drills would happen on Wednesday off the city of Quanzhou, in between two groups of islands close to China’s coast but that Taiwan has controlled since 1949 when defeated Nationalist forces fled to the island at the end of the Chinese civil war.

Chinese state media has said the drills were a direct response to “provocations” by Taiwan leaders related to what China fears are moves to push for the self-ruled island’s formal independence. China claims Taiwan as its sacred territory.

Late on Wednesday, Chinese state television showed footage of helicopters firing missiles during an exercise it said was happening on China’s southeast coast.

State television only showed pictures of helicopters, with no mention of ships or other military equipment such as tanks or amphibious assault vehicles.

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The exercises took place from 8 a.m. (0000GMT) until midnight, the report said, giving the same time frame for the previously announced drills in the Taiwan Strait.

The Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the exercise, and whether it was the same ones previously reported to be happening in the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan on Wednesday denounced the exercises, saying Beijing was using “cheap verbal intimidation and saber rattling” to threaten the island.

Taiwan is one of China’s most sensitive issues and a potential military flashpoint. China has ramped up military exercises around Taiwan in the past year, including flying bombers around the island.

Taiwan’s Defence Ministry said on Wednesday afternoon two Chinese H-6K bombers had flown around the island, passing first through the Miyako Strait to Taiwan’s northeast and then back to base via the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines.

The latest Chinese military movements come during a time of heightened tension between Beijing and the island and follows strong warnings by Chinese President Xi Jinping against Taiwan separatism last month.

China claims Taiwan as its own and considers it a breakaway province.

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