Kurdish regional authorities in northern Iraq are under increasing pressure after Monday’s independence referendum, as the Iraqi government calls for a suspension of international flights to airports in the Kurdish region.
Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines (MEA) will suspend flights to and from Erbil airport in northern Iraq from Friday, citing an Iraqi government decision to block international flights at the airport, MEA Chairman Mohammad al-Hout said by phone.
“For now, we’re stopping. The last flight is on the 29th, until they solve the issue,” he told Reuters news agency on Wednesday.
MEA’s decision comes just hours after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi threatened to impose an international air embargo on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) if it does not hand over control of its airports.
The KRG’s transportation ministry rejected the Iraqi government’s ultimatum and insisted that the region’s airports will remain under the control of Kurdish authorities.
On Tuesday, Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani announced that the majority of Kurdish voters supported independence in Monday’s referendum.
The embargo threat is the latest in a string of retaliatory measures against the KRG’s push for independence.
Domestic flights are not involved in the ultimatum and in the worst case, international travel to and from the KRG will be re-routed through Baghdad and other Iraqi airports, Abadi said.
Baghdad last week asked foreign countries to stop direct flights to the international airports of Erbil and Sulaymaniya, in KRG territory, but only Iran declared such an air embargo, halting direct flights to and from northern Iraq.
Baghdad will also ask neighbouring countries to shut the border with Iraq’s Kurdish region if the KRG does not hand over border posts to the central government by Friday.
In response, Barzani urged the world to “respect the will of millions of people” who voted in Monday’s referendum. He called on Baghdad to engage in a “serious dialogue” with the KRG.
Despite opposition from Baghdad, Turkey and Iran, Iraqi Kurds went to the polls on Monday, with an estimated 72 percent voter turnout, according to the election commission.
In a televised speech from Ankara on Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to impose sanctions against the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, saying it “will be left in a lurch” and its people would go hungry.
“If [Iraqi Kurd leader Masoud] Barzani and the Kurdish Regional Government do not go back on this mistake as soon as possible, they will go down in history with the shame of having dragged the region into an ethnic and sectarian war,” Erdogan said.
The comments came as Iraqi troops joined the Turkish army for joint military exercises near Turkey’s border with northern Iraq.
Turkey has long been northern Iraq’s main link to the outside world, but sees the referendum as a threat to its own national security, fearing it will inflame separatism among its own Kurdish population.