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Iraq's Kurds claim crushing victory in non-binding independence poll

A referendum on independence from Baghdad has been approved by more than 90% of voters, the election commission for Iraq's Kurdish region said.

The non-binding vote is unlikely to lead to formal independence, and has escalated long-running tensions.

Iraq and its neighbours, along with virtually the entire international community, are staunchly opposed to any redrawing of the map.

Regional airlines also say they will comply with a Baghdad-ordered ban on flights to the region which is scheduled to start on Friday.

Hendrin Mohammed, the head of the electoral commission, announced the official results at a press conference on Wednesday, saying the referendum passed with 92.73% support and turnout of more than 72%.

The vote was held across the autonomous Kurdish region's three provinces as well as in some disputed territories controlled by Kurdish security forces but claimed by Baghdad.

Flagship airlines from Lebanon and Egypt are among the carriers halting flights to Irbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region.

Mohamad El-Hout, chairman of Lebanon's Middle East Airlines, said the decision follows the order to international carriers to stop serving Irbil and Sulaimaniyah, the capital and second city of the Kurdish region from Friday.

"We are committed to implement" the decision, Mr el-Hout said.

EgyptAir said on Wednesday it would also cancel flights to Irbil.

Low-cost airline FlyDubai said its flights to Irbil are in question from Saturday on.

Iraq's prime minister Haider al-Abadi has given the Kurds until Friday to hand over control of their airports to federal authorities or face a flight ban.

The transport minister for Iraq's Kurdish region said on Wednesday the region's international airports have not violated any laws that would warrant their closure.

Mawlood Bawa Murad told reporters his ministry is ready to negotiate with Baghdad "if they want to implement the law and show that Iraq has one air space".

The flight ban would affect "one way or another, the military aviation that operates from Irbil international airport", which is used for the campaign against the Islamic State group.

EgyptAir said in a statement it would suspend flights between Cairo and Irbil starting on Friday, citing the Iraqi order.

The airline flies between Cairo and Irbil three times per week.

FlyDubai said in a statement that its flight on Friday will operate as scheduled.

"We are aware of the situation and are liaising with our local representative regarding our operations" from Saturday, the airline said.

The Lebanese airline, meanwhile, has one flight per day to Irbil. It has no flights to Sulaimaniyah.

"This will affect the airline and contacts there," Mr el-Hout said in a telephone interview.

He said Lebanese and other travellers seeking to come to Beirut can fly through Baghdad or Basra.


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