Iraqi PM gives Kurdistan ultimatum on airports, threatens flight ban


Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has given the Kurdish government three days to hand over control of its airports to Baghdad, or face a flight ban.

Baghdad's order on Tuesday to the government of the autonomous region of Kurdistan on its airports marks an escalation of the dispute over a referendum held on the independence of Iraq's Kurdish population.

The northern Kurdish government has until 6 pm (1500 GMT) on Friday to transfer control of the airports. If it does not comply, then a flight ban on airports in the region will be enforced, said al-Abadi.

"I have warned that the vote will destabilise security and stability in Kurdistan and the region as a whole," al-Abadi said in a televised speech one day after Kurdistan's referendum, which Baghdad has called unconstitutional.

Al-Abadi said that Baghdad would make exceptions for humanitarian and emergency flights. Kurdistan's president, Masoud Barzani, claimed victory for the "yes" vote and in a televised speech late Tuesday called on Baghdad and neighbouring countries to respect the will of millions of people.

"You, the people of Kurdistan, you did not allow your will to be broken and now, after your 'yes' vote that was a yes for independence ... we have entered a new stage," Barzani said, according to Kurdish news agency Rudaw.

But regional criticism has mounted on the landlocked region as neighbouring countries have reiterated their rejection of Monday's vote. Iraq and Turkey launched "a large scale" military exercise along their shared border, according to Iraq's army chief of staff, Major General Othman al-Ghanmi.

The referendum raised an alarm among Iraq's neighbours - particularly Turkey, Iran and Syria - because of concerns it could encourage their own Kurdish minorities to break away.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem renewed his opposition to the vote, yet signalled that the government might be open for talks on autonomy with Syria's Kurds.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the referendum held no legitimacy in the eyes of the Turkish government and that Barzani betrayed Turkey by not consulting with Ankara over the decision to hold the vote.

Barzani's failure to seek Turkey's input on the vote was "frankly speaking ... a betrayal of our country," Erdogan said in an address in Ankara.

"As soon as we begin to impose our sanctions, you will in any case be in a predicament," Erdogan said, addressing Barzani.

"As soon as we close the valve, it's over," apparently referring to a pipeline used by Kurdistan to send crude oil to Turkey and global markets. On Monday, Erdogan threatened to shut down this pipeline in response to the vote.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country "fully and completely" supports the central government in Baghdad. But a rejection of the vote could lead to unrest among Kurds in Iran. Iranian lawmakers will meet on Wednesday to discuss the results of the referendum, after initial counts indicating that more than 90 percent of voters said they supported independence.

High-ranking members of the Iranian Security Council will also take part in the parliamentary discussion, according to a report from the ISNA news agency. The final referendum result is expected within three days.

The European Union expressed "regrets" that its calls for the vote to be cancelled had been ignored. It noted that "Iraqi unity remains essential" in order to completely defeat Islamic State.

Meanwhile, the leader of Catalonia's separatist regional government, Carles Puigdemont, wrote on Twitter that he called Barzani to congratulate him.

The Catalan leader and Israeli officials were the only vocal supporters of the vote.    (dpa)

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