MUMBAI - Indian low-cost airline SpiceJet will start direct flights from New Delhi to the Afghan capital Kabul from Tuesday as trade and medical tourism grows between the countries. SpiceJet will be India’s first private airline to operate a direct service to Kabul with its one-hour flight, three times a week. The state-run flagship Air India also flies to Afghanistan, six times a week. “India and Afghanistan always had strong trade links. The idea is to revive that growth potential,” SpiceJet spokeswoman Priti Dey told AFP. “The route would benefit Afghan traders and enable medical tourists from Afghanistan to visit India. Instead of flying to the Gulf, they can fly to Delhi, which is closer.”

India, strongly encouraged by the United States, is keen to expand its economic influence in Afghanistan, but New Delhi is also acutely aware of nuclear-armed rival Pakistan’s sensitivities about Indian “encroachment”. In October last year, India and Afghanistan signed a “strategic partnership” aimed at deepening security and economic links, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai keen to elevate India’s involvement. New Delhi, fearful of the return of an Islamist regime in Kabul, has ploughed at least $2 billion in aid into the country.