Turkey closes airspace to Iraq’s Sulaimaniyah, cites PKK presence

Turkey based its decision on the alleged rise of PKK-linked activity in the northern Iraqi city.

Turkish airlines plane
Planes flying from and to Sulaimaniyah in northern Iraq will be unable to use Turkish airspace until at least July [File: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg]

Turkey has closed its airspace to planes taking off from and landing in Iraq’s northern city of Sulaimaniyah, citing what it said was the heightened presence of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters there, according to a spokesman from its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The closure, announced on Wednesday, began on the same day and will continue until July 3 with the possibility of an extension, the spokesman said, adding that there had been PKK “infiltration” of Sulaymaniyah airport.

The director of the airport, Handren al Mufti, said that the airport had received an email from Turkish Airlines on Monday saying that its flights that day and the next were cancelled, before a subsequent email extended the suspension until April 11.

“I can assure everyone that we have no security issues at all, and not a single incident of security breach occurred inside the airport, but apparently there are other purposes behind their decision,” al Mufti said.

The decision comes weeks after two helicopters crashed in northern Iraq, killing fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces on board.

The SDF is largely made up of the YPG, which Turkey says is the Syrian wing of the PKK. The incident fueled claims that the PKK was in possession of helicopters, infuriating Turkish authorities.

This is not the first time Turkey has closed its airspace to and from the northern Iraqi city, having imposed a similar ban from 2017 to 2019.

The PKK and the Turkish state have been embroiled in conflict since the 1980s. Turkey, the United States and European Union have blacklisted the movement as a “terrorist” group.

In recent years, Turkey has conducted numerous operations against the PKK in northern Iraq, where the group has bases. The most recent operation began in April last year and is ongoing despite opposition from the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.

Civilians have been caught in the fighting, most notably in July when eight tourists were killed in a Turkish air attack.

Ankara has close ties to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the largest party in northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. The party is dominant in the regional capital, Erbil. Its rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, has closer ties to the PKK and is dominant in Sulaimaniyah.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies