* Six Tu-204 on table could more than double Syrianairfleet

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

LATAKIA, Syria, Oct 3 (Reuters) - The Syrian government mayturn to Russia to buy planes as U.S. sanctions disrupt a megaAirbus purchase aimed at boosting Syria's tiny civilianpassenger fleet, the transport minister said on Sunday.

The government is considering buying up to six medium rangeTupolev Tu-204 planes on behalf of flag carrier Syrianair,which has a fleet composed of five functioning aircraft, YarubBadr told Reuters.

"Nothing happened regarding the Airbus deal," Badr saidwhen asked whether there has been any change since he announcedin January that Washington had declined a request by Airbus foran exemption to sell planes to flag carrier Syrianair.

Relations between Washington and Damascus have improvedsince and the U.S. government granted Boeing Co permission tooverhaul two grounded Syrianair 747 aircraft.

But President Barack Obama, who began a rapprochement withSyria soon after he took power last year, has kept renewing thesanctions, with major political differences remaining betweenthe two countries.

The United States imposed the sanctions in 2004 for Syria'srole in Iraq and Lebanon and support for militant groups.

"The United States has placed an embargo on (Airbus andBoeing) exports to Syria. The Russian option is real and veryserious," Badr said.

Moscow and Damascus have signed at least two memoranda ofunderstanding for plane orders in the last five years, but nopurchases happened. Badr hinted that a deal with Tupolev, whichis linked to the Russian government, may not be imminent.

"Buying aircraft is not as simple as buying a kilo ofbread. It needs time," said Badr, who was speaking on thesideline of a Syrian-Turkish political forum in the port cityof Latakia on the Mediterranean.

"We recently asked the Russian side to assign a singleentity to negotiate the sale with Syrianair. The talks have tobe direct, with no middle men or commissions," he added.


Badr said airlines from countries with good ties to Syria,especially Turkish Airlines, have been operating extra flightsto Damascus and picking up the demand generated by Syrianair'scapacity shortfall.

France, among the first to advocate detente with Damascus,has also been in favour of business deals in Syria, supportinga letter of intent signed two years ago between Syrianair andAirbus, a subsidiary of Franco-German company EADS, for amultibillion dollar order.

The agreement involved the possible lease and purchase of atotal of 54 aircraft until 2028, including 8 in 2009, and helpby Airbus to restructure Syrianair.

Airbus needs an export licence to sell to Syria because itsplanes tend to have U.S. components.

The company has kept mum about its business contacts withSyria, a sensitive issue considering that EADS is competingalong with a U.S. partner against Boeing for a U.S. Air Forcetanker refuelling deal worth up to $50 billion.

Boeing has already brought up contacts by an Airbussubsidiary with Iran, an ally of Syria also under U.S.sanctions, and said the contacts should be taken into accountwhen awarding the contract. (Editing by Lincoln Feast)