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Tuesday, 4 December, 2001, 12:25 GMT
Afghan airline returns to the skies
Taking to the skies again: Ariana Afghan's test flight
By Alan Johnston in Kabul

Driving up to Kabul international airport means negotiating a checkpoint manned by Northern Alliance fighters - the first sign that this is no ordinary airport.

The airport is home to the national carrier, Ariana Afghan, one of the world's most troubled airlines.

Test flight at Kabul airport
Ariana employees have high hopes for the airline
Passing the bombed-out terminal and moving onto the runway, you are confronted by what looks like an aeroplane graveyard.

The carcasses of bombed and burnt-out planes are strewn along the sides of the tarmac.

The place has been subjected to countless air raids and rocket strikes and it was swept by fighting in the early 1990s.

At that time a friend of mine, a civilian, was trying to take a badly wounded relative to Pakistan for treatment when his plane was hit by a rocket while on the runway.

"It was a big explosion, a boom in the plane... I managed to get out with the help of other passengers in the plane because everybody thought that the plane might explode. But fortunately that didn't happen," he told me.

Keeping going

The airline's chief pilot, Captain Nabi, says that operating out of this airfield has been a risky business in the past, but they didn't have any alternative.

When peace settles in Afghanistan, I am sure there will be a tremendous number of passengers from all over the world

Mr Fidawi
Ariana Afghan technical advisor
"We had to keep Ariana alive and keep our licences current, so we had to keep Ariana running."

Ariana Afghan has had to cope with two decades of war.

It was crippled by the UN's anti-Taleban sanctions and six of its eight planes were destroyed in the American-led bombing.

But despite this, Ariana Afghan has taken to the skies again.

Test flight

One of the survivors, a little Russian-built twin-prop Antonov-24, was only slightly damaged but it has just completed a test flight.

US bombing destroyed most aircraft
When I climbed aboard the AN-24 to have a word with the captain, he told me it had been successful.

"It was the first flight after the pushing back of the Taleban, and we can say that we opened the space today for Ariana planes to fly."

As soon as runaway conditions permit, Ariana Afghan plans to start routes to the Indian cities of Delhi and Amritsar, and to the United Arab Emirates, according to technical advisor, Mr Fidawi.

"When peace settles in Afghanistan, I am sure there will be a tremendous number of passengers from all over the world," he said.

Plane propeller
The airline plans routes to India and the Gulf
"They will come as tourists or they will be Afghans who are living in Europe and other countries are going to come back to Afghanistan to settle or visit their families. "

Captain Nabi says this is all this good news, reviving memories of the good old days.

"We had great hopes at the beginning of the seventies. It was a great airline. And today all Ariana employees are very happy because again one of our aircraft is in the air."

The BBC's Alan Johnston in Kabul
"Operating out of Kabul airport has been a risky business"
See also:

13 Nov 01 | South Asia
Kabul falls to Northern Alliance
11 Feb 01 | South Asia
UN blocks Afghan safety flights
08 Nov 01 | South Asia
Afghan airline grounded
06 Feb 00 | South Asia
Ariana: Flying in the face of adversity
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