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Flight ban imposed on Iraq's Kurdish airports following poll goes into effect

A central government imposed ban on international flights servicing airports in Iraq's Kurdish region has gone into effect.

The flight ban has so far been the most significant escalation amid heightened tensions, largely marked by threats from Baghdad and neighbouring countries, following the controversial referendum on support for independence held by Iraq's Kurds on Monday.

Hundreds of passengers lined up in the hours before an Iraqi government order that international airlines halt all flights in and out of the cities of Irbil and Sulaimaniyah in Kurdish territory kicked in.

The volume of passengers was higher than usual but no additional flights were added to accommodate people attempting to depart the region ahead of the ban, officials said.

Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi first warned of the ban the day after the referendum was held, demanding the Kurdish region hand their airports over to central government.

While Baghdad controls the airspace over the Kurdish region, immigration and security inside the airports are controlled by local Kurdish region officials and security forces.

Iraq's transport ministry ordered international airlines to halt service to Irbil, the Kurdish regional capital, and Sulaimaniyah, its second city.

Regional airlines have said they will honour the flight ban.

Talar Saleh, the general director of Irbil International Airport, said Kurdish authorities have attempted to communicate with Baghdad to comply with the demand to hand the airport over to federal authorities.

Kurdish officials requested "a meeting to get everybody together so we can discuss closely, face-to-face, what's required from the (Kurdish region's) airports", she said at a press conference held at the airport on Friday.

"So far, up to this moment, there is no reply from Baghdad."

Many of the hundreds of people travelling on Friday afternoon were foreigners ordered to leave the region by the companies they work for.

"Of course we don't want to leave," said Joao Gabriel Villar, a Brazilian doctor working for a non-governmental organisation that helps people displaced by the conflict with the Islamic State group.

"We had only just arrived," he said.

"We could have helped many more people if we stayed."

The non-binding referendum, in which the Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence from Iraq, was billed by Kurdish leaders as an exercise in self-determination.

The idea of an independent state has been central to Kurdish politics for decades.

Mr al-Abadi said the flight ban was not intended to hold the Kurdish region captive, according to a statement released by his office on Friday afternoon.

"Central government control of air and land ports in the Kurdistan region is not meant to starve, besiege and prevent (the delivery of) supplies to the citizens in the region as alleged by some Kurdistan region officials," said the statement.

AP

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