By BRAM JANSSEN
IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — Hundreds of passengers waited to board flights out of the Kurdish region at Irbil International Airport on Thursday after Baghdad threatened to ban flights following an independence referendum held by Iraq’s Kurds earlier this week.
Most international carriers who fly to and from airports in the Kurdish region announced they would halt flights beginning Friday night in line with the ban. Also on Thursday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Turkey has agreed to deal only with Baghdad on oil exports from the self-ruled Kurdish region.
At Irbil’s airport, many of the passengers were foreigners who said they were traveling to avoid possibly being stuck once the flight ban goes into effect Friday.
Murat Mutlar, a Turkish citizen, said the company he works for in Irbil ordered him to leave before Friday and as of Thursday he didn’t know if he’ll return.
“It depends on the situation here. If they make again all flights open … we will come back again and continue our work,” he said.
Iraq’s Transport Ministry ordered international airlines to halt service to Irbil, the Kurdish regional capital, and Sulaimaniyah, its second city, beginning Friday evening.
State carrier Qatar Airways was just the latest airline to announce all flights to and from the Kurdish region would be canceled starting Saturday. Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines, EgyptAir and Royal Jordanian announced Wednesday that flights would be suspended beginning Friday evening.
Low-cost carrier FlyDubai said it is halting flights from Saturday. And Sharjah-based Air Arabia said it will “temporarily suspend its flights” from Saturday in line with the order it received from the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority.
In a statement issued late Wednesday following a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, al-Abadi said Turkey would support all measures taken in response to the Kurdish independence referendum.
In defiance of Baghdad, the self-ruled Kurdish region has been unilaterally exporting crude oil produced in their region and contested areas through Turkey.
Ankara had forged close ties to Iraq’s Kurdish region, but is strongly opposed to its moves toward independence, fearing it could inspire Turkey’s own Kurdish minority. It has threatened military action and economic sanctions against the landlocked region.
The Kurdish referendum on support for independence from Iraq passed with more than 92 percent support, the Kurdish region’s election commission said Wednesday, with turnout at more than 72 percent.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.