- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2003

NEW DELHI, March 19 (UPI) — Indian authorities Wednesday suspended 22 scheduled weekly flights to the Persian Gulf region as President George W. Bush's ultimatum to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein neared expiration.

State-run Air India and Indian Airlines scrapped eight flights to Dammam, seven to Bahrain and seven flights to Kuwait as the war clouds loomed large.

India's Civil Aviation Minister Shahnawaz Hussein said Indian planes flying to Western nations would also avoid Iraqi airspace, causing huge losses due to increased fuel consumption.

Indian planes are already banned from flying over Pakistani airspace as a retaliatory measure adopted by Islamabad after New Delhi banned Pakistani planes from flying over Indian territory.

"If the situation takes a turn for the worse and flying over Iranian airspace becomes dangerous, then Indian flights bound to the U.S. and European countries will have to take a much longer route," he said. "It will take an additional 135 minutes to reach these destinations."

He said the impending war had led to many tourist cancellations to India.

Special flights are being operated around the clock to evacuate hundreds of thousands of Indian who work in the region and want to return home due to the impending war.

More than 4,000 Indians are being evacuated each day from Kuwait and neighboring countries.

The two airlines are making almost 11 trips to the region to meet the exodus of expatriate Indians.

Meanwhile, India rejected Bush's 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam to leave Iraq or face war, and expressed hope that "peace will prevail."

Speaking at a ceremony to give out the Gandhi Peace Prize in New Delhi, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said, "When we are talking about the Gandhi Peace Prize, elsewhere in the world ultimatums are being given and people are being thrown out," he said. "We should still hope that there will be victory for peace."

India's main opposition Congress party also called the U.S. demand dangerous and unacceptable.

"The decision to go to war tramples on the U.N. charter, denigrates the Security Council, flouts international law, does grave injury to the concept of national sovereignty and sets dangerous and unacceptable precedents," Congress party spokesman Jaipal Reddy said.

India has said it will not support any U.S.-led war against Iraq that does not have U.N. backing.

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