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Syria fly-over sparks new criticism of Malaysia Airlines

Embattled Malaysia Airlines faced fresh outrage on Tuesday as it confirmed one of its planes flew over war-torn Syria

KUALA LUMPUR: Embattled Malaysia Airlines faced fresh outrage on Tuesday as it confirmed one of its planes flew over war-torn Syria, just days after the MH17 disaster laid bare the risks civilian aircraft face in flying over war zones.

The Malaysian flag carrier confirmed that flight MH004, bound from London for Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, re-routed over Syria following the closure of the flight's usual route over Ukraine in the wake of the MH17 tragedy three days earlier.

In a statement issued late Monday, the crisis-hit airline said the Syrian flight path was among routes approved by the UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

"As per the notice to airmen (NOTAM) issued by the Syrian Civil Aviation Authority, the Syrian airspace was not subject to restrictions. At all times, MH004 was in airspace approved by ICAO," it said.

But the move drew disbelief and scorn on social media.

"What is wrong with these guys?! Malaysians are now flying over Syria," said one of many Twitter postings on the issue.

"Wanna lose another plane?" asked another.

Pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine -- where a violent rebellion has raged for months -- have been accused of shooting down MH17, killing all 298 aboard in a tragedy that has triggered world outrage.

Syria has been convulsed by a far more bloody civil war since 2011. The airlines and Malaysia's government have previously defended MH17's flight path over Ukraine.

They cited ICAO clearance for the route, and noted that several major carriers used the well-traveled Europe-Asia path up until the MH17 attack, though some other airlines had abandoned it months ago.

Air traffic tracking site Flightradar24 first reported MH4's flight path on its Twitter feed on Monday.

"As far as we have seen #MH4 was the only transcontinental flight going over Syria," it said.

Malaysia Airlines did not respond to AFP queries on whether the airline would continue to use the Syria route but Flightradar24 data showed that the path of MH004 on Monday -- a day after the Syria flyover -- skirted just east of Syrian airspace, over Turkey.

Airlines seek the most direct routes possible to minimise flight time and fuel costs, but MH17, which was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, has spectacularly highlighted the potential risks of flying over world hotspots.

Besides Syria and Ukraine, fighting in areas such as Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East make it difficult to find conflict-free routes for already congested air traffic.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) chief Tony Tyler issued a statement on Tuesday condemning the MH17 attack and defending Malaysia Airlines.

"Governments and air navigation service providers inform airlines about the routes that they can fly and with what restrictions. Airlines comply with that guidance. That was the case with MH17," Tyler said.

Both Moscow and the pro-Russia rebels who seek to break away from Ukraine have denied accusations by Washington and Kiev that MH17 was shot down by the insurgents using a missile system supplied by Russia.

Malaysia Airlines had already faced criticism over the mysterious disappearance of flight MH370 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 with 239 people aboard.

The plane inexplicably veered off course and is now believed to have gone down far to the south in the Indian Ocean, but no trace of any wreckage has been found, and the cause of its disappearance remains unknown.

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