Russia to conduct naval exercises off Lebanese shore

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon said on Friday Russia was planning to carry out a three-day naval exercise in the Mediterranean Sea and that Lebanese authorities were working on ways to avoid disruption to civilian flights taking off from Beirut. Moscow, which is carrying out air strikes in Lebanon's neighbour Syria, sent an urgent telegram to Lebanese aviation authorities saying its manoeuvres would start at midnight (2200 GMT), the ministry of Public Works and Transport said. The ministry had set up an emergency group "to ensure the continuity of takeoffs and landings at the airport, taking into account the maximum degree of public safety, it said. Transport Minister Ghazi Zeaiter told Reuters earlier on Friday Lebanon had refused Moscow's request to divert civilian flights from over the area in international waters where they are planning to conduct the exercise. A Russian Defence Ministry official in Moscow declined any immediate comment. Flight paths from Lebanon are limited because the national carrier Middle East Airlines (MEA) does not fly over Israel and other airlines have avoided flying over Syria. MEA Chairman Mohamad al-Hout told Reuters that flights could be diverted over Cyprus and that it did not appear flights would be cancelled as a result of the training exercises. "The decision should be taken by the Lebanese government. They are working on opening an air corridor above Cyprus and if it doesn't work we will stick to the current lines. Until now there is no decision to suspend flights." According to an international governmental database of notices for airmen (NOTAM) Russia gave notice on Nov. 20 of a rocket test firing off the Lebanese coast over a three-day period. It has carried out previous exercises in the waters off Lebanon. (Reporting by Laila Bassam and Mariam Karouny in Beirut and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow, Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Richard Balmforth)