US flights diverted as Russia permissions to expire

Washington (AFP) - US airlines have begun diverting flights away from Russian airspace just hours before a deadline to renegotiate access agreements is to expire, the State Department said Tuesday.

Every day, dozens of American flights cross Russian skies on their shortest and most lucrative routes to South Asia, but their permission to do so was due to run out at 7:59 pm (2359 GMT).

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the US ambassador to Moscow, Jon Huntsman, was in last-minute discussion with Russian officials to facilitate a breakthrough in talks with airlines.

Russian civil aviation officials had been due to attend discussions hosted by the State Department in Washington, but canceled. The airlines sent representatives to the talks.

Nauert said the Russians had not indicated why they had backed out of the meetings.

But the decision came after Saturday's US-led air strikes on Syria angered Moscow, which has previously attempted to use air routes as diplomatic bargaining chips.

"Some... commercial carriers are now making the decision to reroute their flights because they're concerned about that expiration," Nauert told reporters.

"We don't want that kind of commercial aviation disruption."

Despite the imminent deadline, however, the US spokeswoman held open the possibility of a last-minute arrangement.

"We've ramped up our engagement," she said, explaining that what had been contacts between airlines and Russian officials facilitated by a junior US official now included the ambassador.

"Russia has not yet indicated whether it will extend the approvals," the spokeswoman continued.

"But the Russian government did say to our embassy, when we spoke with them: 'Don't panic, we're not going to do anything to harm the US aviation sector.'

"We certainly hope that that is the case. We're expecting a Russian response later today. We hope that they will stand by it."