Ban lifted, first Turkish flight in over a year lands in Kurdistan's Sulaimani
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Commercial flights from the Kurdistan Region’s Sulaimani International Airport to Turkey resumed on Saturday early morning after more than a year of an embargo by Ankara.
The first flight, operated by Turkish Airlines, arrived from Istanbul in Sulaimani at 3:11 am local time and took off again at 4:22 am to return to Turkey.
The flights between Sulaimani and Turkey are expected to continue daily, seven times a week, according to airport officials.
In a statement, the Director-General of the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority (ICAA), Ali Khalil Ibrahim, stated that Iraqi Airways will resume flights between Sulaimani and Istanbul in the coming days.
Ankara’s ban has been in effect for over a year and came following the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum in September 2017. It first included both the airports in the capital of Erbil and Sulaimani as part of an international travel ban imposed by Baghdad. However, in March 2018 after Baghdad lifted its ban, Turkey agreed to resume flights only to Erbil.
Ankara’s continued embargo was based on allegations that both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Gorran (Change) Movement – the dominant two parties in the province of Sulaimani – had been providing support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK is Kurdish group fighting for broader rights in Turkey which Ankara, the United States, and the European Union have designated a “terrorist” organization.
Despite appeals and concerted efforts by Sulaimani and airport authorities, Ankara extended the embargo by three additional months in late December. In early January, Iraqi President Barham Salih, a leadership member of the PUK, visited Turkey and was reported to have brought up the issue during a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In tandem with diplomatic efforts, Sulaimani’s security forces (Asayish) – which the PUK has significant authority over – continued a months-long crackdown on Tavgari Azadi, a party with apparent links to the PKK.
The flight ban caused significant financial hardship for the province’s government and people.
“The Turkish flight ban has damaged Sulaimani airport’s revenue by $5.4 million over the past year,” Tahir Abdullah, Director of Sulaimani Airport, said in a press conference.
According to Abdullah, imports dropped by 73 percent and exports by 82 percent in 2018, a major blow to an airport that had previously been collecting approximately fifteen thousand dollars per days in customs and other fees.
Editing by John J. Catherine