ANKARA: Turkey closed its airspace to flights to and from an airport in Kurdish-administered northern Iraq, a top Turkish official announced Wednesday, citing an alleged increase in Kurdish militant activity threatening flight safety.
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Tanju Bilgic said the Turkish airspace has been closed to flights taking off and landing at Sulaimaniyah International Airport, in northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, since Tuesday.
The closure was in response to an alleged increase in the activities of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in Sulaimaniyah as well as its “infiltration” into the airport, Bilgic said in a written statement.
The decision comes weeks after two helicopters crashed in northern Iraq, killing Kurdish militants on board. The incident fuelled claims that the PKK was in possession of helicopters which infuriated Turkish authorities.
The main US-backed and Kurdish-led force in northeastern Syria later said it lost nine fighters, including a commander, in the crash which occurred during bad weather while on route to Suleimaniyah. The nine killed included elite fighters who were in Iraq as part of an “exchange of expertise” in the fight against Daesh militants, said the group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.
The PKK has been waging an insurgency against Turkey since the 1980s and is considered a terrorist group by Ankara, the United States and the European Union. Its militants have established safe havens in northern Iraq and frequently come under attack by Turkey in the region.
Turkey also considers a Syrian Kurdish militant group, which forms the backbone of the SDF, as a terrorist organization. The United States however, distinguishes between the PKK and SDF and doesn’t consider the SDF a terrorist group.
Bilgic said the Turkish airspace would remain closed until July 3, when Turkish authorities would review the security situation.
The helicopter crash also fed into a local rivalry between the two main Kurdish parties in Iraq.
Officials from the Kurdish Democratic Party, which has maintained largely good relations with Turkey, alleged after the crash that the helicopters had been originally purchased by the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, which has its stronghold in Sulaimaniyah, and that they had been flying without permission from the regional government.