The Turkish Foreign Ministry announced on Wednesday that Ankara sealed off its airspace to flights to and from northern Iraq’s Sulaimaniyah International Airport in an apparent retaliation against deepening ties between a major Iraqi Kurdish political party and outlawed Kurdish militants.
The ministry cited increasing activity of outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants in the area, adding that the decision taken on April 3 will remain in effect until July 3.
The ministry said PKK militants’ “infiltration” into the airport was threatening flight safety.
The move came after a helicopter carrying Kurdish militants crashed en route to Sulaimaniyah, the stronghold of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two major political blocs influential in Iraqi Kurdistan. Nine Kurdish militants died during the crash. US-allied, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces identified the victims as members of its elite forces.
Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Masrour Barzani said the AS350 Eurocopter belonged to the PUK and was carrying five PKK members. The KRG is dominated by the PUK's main rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Unlike its rival, the KDP, led by Masoud Barzani, enjoys close relations with Ankara.
Turkey equates the SDF with the PKK and presses Washington to cut its ties with the group. Headquartered in the northern Iraqi mountains, the PKK has been fighting the Turkish government for self-rule inside Turkey for nearly four decades. Along with Ankara and several other Western capitals, Washington also considers the PKK a terrorist organization but argues that the SDF and the PKK are not the same.
Ties between the PUK and Kurdish militants have been deepening over the past months. PUK leader Bafel Talabani traveled to Kurdish-held northern Syria late last year and met with SDF Commander-in-Chief Mazlum Kobane. The victims of the crash included Sherwan Kobane, a nephew of Mazlum. The Turkish Foreign Ministry said Ankara would closely follow the developments in the region before re-evaluating the decision on July 3.