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Refueling row delays Syrian peace envoys' plane in Greece

BEIRUT/ATHENS (Reuters) - A Syrian government delegation heading to peace talks in Switzerland was held up for hours in Athens on Tuesday when a Greek firm refused to refuel their plane, citing an EU trade embargo.

The incident was the latest in a series of delays and diplomatic spats in the lead-up to talks due to start on Wednesday between President Bashar al-Assad's government and opposition figures to end their three-year conflict.

Syrian state television issued a terse statement saying the plane had been grounded in Greece for four hours and that the delay could cause Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem to miss his meeting with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. It said the plane had later resumed its flight.

"The delegation's plane landed at Athens international airport and was prevented from Refueling," Syrian state television said, adding that all airspace permissions had previously been granted for the flight.

Vassilis Alevizopoulos, head of Greece's Civil Aviation Workers Union, said the plane was allowed to land in Athens but the fuel company refused to refuel it because of European Union sanctions against Syria. He did not give the company's name.

Syrian state television said the plane was finally allowed to refuel and continued on its way to Geneva, which Greek aviation officials confirmed.

Tuesday's incident came a day after Syrian officials accused France of trying to derail talks by denying the Syrian delegation access to French airspace to land in Switzerland.

France's Foreign Ministry denied the Syrian claims. A French diplomatic source said the delay was normal, given that the request came before the weekend and that there was never any question of refusing the request.

(Reporting by Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Harry Papachristou in Athens and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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