NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will avoid flying over Pakistan during an official trip to central Asia on Thursday, the Indian foreign ministry said, even though Pakistan has granted overflight access.

Pakistan closed its airspace in February after a suicide attack by an armed group in India-held Kashmir led to aerial bombing missions on each other’s soil and a fighter dogfight over Kashmir.

Commercial and cargo airlines using Indian airspace have been forced to take costly and time-consuming detours because they cannot fly over Pakistan.

But Pakistan had cleared Modi’s flight to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit beginning on Thursday, Indian and Pakistan sources said.

The Indian foreign ministry said the government had considered the routes for Mr Modi’s travel and decided he would take the longer passage to Central Asia instead of the direct route over Pakistan.

Pakistan had allowed ex-Indian minister Sushma Swaraj to use its airspace when she was travelling to Bishkek

The move follows calls in local media that Mr Modi shouldn’t be securing an exception for himself while thousands of ordinary travellers were enduring the longer travel because of the tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

“The government of India had explored two options for the route to be taken by the VVIP aircraft to Bishkek. A decision has now been taken that the VVIP aircraft will fly via Oman, Iran and Central Asian countries on the way to Bishkek,” the foreign ministry said.

Modi’s move also suggests there is little chance of a thaw in ties even though Pakistan said it hoped to revive talks after elections in India ended in May.

Prime Minister Imran Khan will also be attending the SCO meeting, but Indian officials said there were no plans for a bilateral meeting between him and Modi.

Even as India announced that Modi would not be flying over Pakistan, Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan said Pakistan’s airspace would be opened for 72 hours during which an Indian aircraft could fly to Bishkek from New Delhi and return the next day, Mohammad Asghar in Rawalpindi added.

With the opening of the airspace, the travel time for an Indian flight to Bishkek would reduce to one and a half hours.

Mr Khan said India was facing more losses than Pakistan due to the closure of the Pakistani airspace.

Islamabad closed the airspace in late February after some Indian Air Force aircraft tried to bomb a target in Balakot, which heightened tensions between the neighbours.

However, Pakistan had last month allowed the then Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to use Pakistani airspace when she was travelling to Bishkek to attend an SCO meeting on May 21. However, the airspace remained closed for other commercial flights.

Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2019