Kurdistan air embargo begins as tensions rise over independence referendum

Voting starts in Iraqi Kurdistan's independence referendumReuters

Airline companies are preparing to comply with an order to cancel flights to Iraqi Kurdistan region, after Baghdad imposed an air embargo. The order was issued due to tensions over an independence referendum held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

On Monday (25 September) Iraqi Kurds headed to the polls to decide whether they wanted their autonomous region to be independent from the rest of Iraq. In spite of an overwhelming "yes" vote, the referendum is not legally binding and Kurdish authorities intend to use it to pressurise Baghdad into start negotiations and formalise independence.

However, Iraq, which considers the vote "unconstitutional", called on the Kurdish region to hand over control of its airports or face an "air embargo" by Friday.

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After KRG rejected the ultimatum, Iraq's Transport Ministry ordered international airlines to halt services to Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital, and Sulaimaniyah, its second city.

The embargo is expected to last until 29 December. It would also apply to humanitarian and other 'urgent' flights, according to Reuters.

It is believed that most regional airlines will comply with the order.

National carriers from Lebanon, Jordan, Qatar and Egypt announced they would suspend flights. Turkish airline Pegasus also said it would immediately suspend services, according to local media.

International airlines Lufthansa and Austrian Wings have said they will continue to operate flights in the region, Kurdistan 24 reported.

Meanwhile, a third German airline, Germania, said it would suspend all flights to and from Erbil and Sulaimani until further notice.

The Erbil International Airport (EIA) said in a statement on its website that it would operate a normal schedule until Friday at 6pm local time. It is not clear whether the airport will remain open.

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The airport's general director condemned the embargo, claiming it would undermine the ongoing fight against Isis. Erbil is just hours way from the battlefield where Iraqi troops – helped by Kurdish soldiers – are fighting to regain control of territories seized by the terrorists.

"The imposition of a 'no fly zone for Kurdistan's airports will bring hardship to the region," said the director. "It will impact the fight against ISIS, and will impact the work of the UN and other Non Governmental Organisations in their support of the 1.5m plus refugees and IDP's in Kurdistan.

"The demand to 'hand over' the airports is a sham to divert attention from an airspace closure designed to impose further economic sanction on the region."

EIA is seeking further dialogue with Baghdad. It stressed that the airport authorities have "always cooperated with the federal regulator, the ICAA [Iraq Civil Aviation Authority] and the airports in Kurdistan remain under the supervision of the ICAA."

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Tensions in the region

Iraqi Kurds gather in the street waving Kurdish flags next to a poster of the president of Iraq's Kurdistan region as they urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on September 13, 2017. Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region will hold a historic referendum on statehood in September 2017, despite opposition to independence from Baghdad and possibly beyond.SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

Iran and Turkey strongly criticised the referendum and urged Kurdish officials to call it off. They fear that the referendum could spark independence sentiments among Kurdish populations in their own countries.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Iraqi Kurds "could go hungry" if he implements punitive measures following the referendum.

The leader, who described the referendum as "treachery", said Ankara was considering imposing sanctions and blocking Iraqi Kurds' oil exports.

"The moment we turn off the valve, it is finished, all your income will disappear," he warned. "When the trucks stop crossing into northern Iraq, they will not find food or clothes ... Will Israel send them what and from where?"

Both the US and the UN have opposed the referendum.

"We believe this step will increase instability and hardships for the Kurdistan region and its people," US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement.

"The fight against Isis is not over, and extremist groups are seeking to exploit instability and discord. We believe all sides should engage constructively in a dialogue to improve the future of all Iraqis," she added.

A spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the referendum could be "potentially destabilising" for the region.

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