Foreigners leave Iraqi Kurdistan before flight ban

ARBIL, Iraq — Foreigners scrambled to leave Iraqi Kurdistan Friday hours before the start of a flight ban imposed by Baghdad in retaliation for an independence referendum that has sent regional tensions soaring.

Iraq’s central government has ordered a halt to all international flights to and from the autonomous region from 6:00 p.m. (1500 GMT) Friday after Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted for independence.

Washington has said it would be willing to facilitate talks between the Iraqi Kurdish authorities and Baghdad to calm escalating tensions over the 92-percent “yes” vote, as a top Shiite cleric called for solving the crisis in an Iraqi court.

Neighboring Turkey and Iran also strongly opposed the vote, fearing it would inflame the separatist aspirations of their own sizable Kurdish population.

The Kurds have condemned the flight suspension as “collective punishment.”Ankara has threatened a series of measures including blocking crucial oil exports from the region via Turkey.

On Friday, Iraqi Kurdistan’s transport ministry sent a letter to Baghdad asking to “open negotiations” on flights but was still awaiting a reply, a ministry spokesman said.

The ban has seen people, many of them foreigners, flock to the airport in the regional capital Arbil to avoid being stranded.

An extended suspension of flights would have significant consequences for the Kurds, who have turned Arbil into a regional transport hub.

Iraqi Kurdistan is home to a large international community, most of whom enter on a visa issued by the regional authorities that is not recognised by the central government, so they cannot travel to elsewhere in Iraq.

On Friday, around 100 passengers waited eagerly for their planes in Arbil, where the information board showed the last flight out was to Vienna at 4 pm with later flights cancelled.

“We were supposed to go back to Brazil next Saturday but we rescheduled our flight because of the border closing,” said Isidoro Junior, a 32-year-old volunteer for an NGO providing medical assistance to Iraqis displaced by the war against the Islamic State group.

“We are a group of 16 people, so it was quite difficult to find enough seats. One of us came here at 2 am to make sure… we would be able to fly out,” he said.

In the region’s second-largest city Sulaimaniyah, foreigners and others needing to leave sped to the airport, while Kurds who were abroad for business or tourism rushed back from abroad.

“There have been masses of people for two days,” said airport spokesman Dana Mohammad Said.

“After 6 pm there will be no more international flights, just internal flights,” he said.

The civil aviation authority in Baghdad has said that a decision on internal flights will be made later.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s highest Shiite religious authority, called for all sides “to abide by the Iraqi constitution and to appeal to High Federal Court to solve the Kurdistan crisis.”

“We would like to see some calm on all sides,” US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, noting that the US had opposed the referendum “because we thought it would be destabilising.”The United States said it would be prepared to “help facilitate a conversation” between Arbil and Baghdad.

On Thursday, the spokesman for the international coalition fighting IS in Iraq and neighboring Syria said the referendum had taken focus away from the war against the jihadists.

But he said there was “absolutely no effect on current military operations out of Arbil using the airport”.

Iraqi forces on Friday launched an assault on the northern town of Hawija, one of the last IS bastions in the country along with a stretch of the Euphrates Valley near the border with Syria.

Kurdish forces have been key allies in US-backed offensives against IS in both Syria and Iraq.

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