Turkey extends flight ban for Iraq's Sulaimaniyah Airport 'by another six months'
Turkey has decided to extend the ban on flights through Turkish airspace to and from Sulaimaniyah International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan for an additional six months, the director of the airport told The New Arab.
Turkey's foreign ministry had announced in April that it was suspending access to its airspace for flights to and from the airport until 3 January 2024, citing security concerns over the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militant group.
"Since Saturday, Turkey has extended the suspension for another six months, effective until 22 June 2024," Handren Mufti, the director of Sulaimani International Airport told The New Arab in a phone call.
"The reason is that Turkey refuses to open flights to and from the airport, and Ankara also disagrees with opening its airspace to all flights from the airport.”
Mufti declined to directly talk about the issue of the PKK, but he said that the airport is "very safe for flights" and that "no security breaches had happened in the airport".
He said major airlines had been continuing to operate flights to and from the airport.
"If the airport had any terrorist activities, then those airlines should have had similar reactions," Mufti said.
In March, two helicopters mysteriously crashed in the Duhok province of the Kurdistan region, killing at least nine members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - including the group's counter-terrorism commander Shervan Kobani, a cousin of SDF leader Mazloum Abdi.
The SDF said the delegation was on its way to Sulaimaniyah "to exchange security and military expertise", and they crashed due to "bad weather".
The SDF, an umbrella group in northeast Syria, is primarily made up of fighters from the People's Protection Forces (YPG) - a group Turkey claims is the Syrian offshoot of the PKK and labels as a terror organisation.
Ankara has mounted repeated armed incursions to force its fighters out of areas near the Turkey-Syria border.
Turkey's foreign ministry announced weeks later that flights from Turkey to the airport would be banned due to" intensification of the PKK terrorist organisation's activities in Sulaymaniyah, infiltration by the terrorist organisation into the airport, and thus the threatening of flight safety".
Abdi survived a drone attack in the vicinity of the airport just days after Turkey’s decision to ban flights to the airport.
Turkey is believed to have extended the flight ban because it believes that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the political party that de facto rules Sulaimaniyah, has not taken "serious measures" to clamp down on the PKK presence and activity in the area, a Kurdish source informed on the matter told The New Arab.
Another probable factor is that Turkey "says that the PUK is still helping the Syrian Kurds and has not cut ties with them", the source said.