ARBIL: The Iraqi government cut autonomous Kurdistan’s direct air links with the outside world indefinitely on Friday, partially isolating the northern region after it voted a massive "yes" in an independence referendum.
The move increases the pressure on the Iraqi Kurds amid soaring regional tensions following Monday’s non-binding but deeply contentious vote.
The central government in Baghdad had ordered the halt to all foreign flights to and from the region from 6pm (1500 GMT).
Foreigners scrambled to fly out of Iraqi Kurdistan from the region’s capital, Arbil, and its second largest city Sulaimaniyah before the ban took effect.
The Iraqi Kurdish transport minister, Mawlud Bawa Murad, told AFP at Arbil airport that the flight ban would "negatively impact all international businesses in the Kurdistan region, in addition to all civilians, from all nations".
It would "negatively impact our daily life," he said. "We will do our best to find a viable alternative, or succeed to bring back international flights."
Arbil airport is a key gateway for humanitarian aid workers helping Iraqis affected by the battle against the Daesh group.
Washington has said it would be willing to facilitate talks between the Iraqi Kurdish authorities and Baghdad to calm escalating tensions over the 92% "yes" vote, as a top Shiite cleric called for the crisis to be solved in an Iraqi court.
Neighbouring Turkey and Iran also strongly opposed the vote, fearing it would inflame the separatist aspirations of their own sizeable Kurdish populations.
Ankara has threatened a series of measures, including blocking lifeline oil exports from the region via Turkey.
The Kurds, whose borders with Turkey, Iran and Syria remain open, have condemned the flight suspension as "collective punishment".
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said it was not "punishment" but a legal measure that would be reversed if the transport authority was transferred to Baghdad in line with the Iraqi constitution.
The ban saw people, many of them foreigners, flock to the airport in Arbil to avoid being stranded.
Kurds rush back
Iraqi Kurdistan is home to a large international community, most of whom enter on a visa issued by the regional authorities that is not recognised by the central government, so they cannot travel elsewhere in Iraq .
On Friday, around 100 passengers waited eagerly for their planes in Arbil, where the last flight out was to Vienna at 4pm.
"We were supposed to go back to Brazil next Saturday but we rescheduled our flight," said Isidoro Junior, a 32-year-old volunteer for an NGO providing medical assistance to Iraqis displaced by the war against Daesh.
"We are a group of 16 people, so it was quite difficult to find enough seats. One of us came here at 2am to make sure...we would be able to fly out," he said.
At the Turkish Airlines counter, before the last flight left, a one-way ticket to Istanbul cost $743. But it sold for $1,500 online, said one passenger who had paid twice in error, leaving a £3,000 dent in his credit card.
The director of Arbil airport, Talar Faiq Salih, said humanitarian, military and diplomatic flights were excluded from the ban.
Earlier, the UN humanitarian office OCHA said it was working to ensure aid could continue to reach tens of thousands of needy Iraqis.
In Sulaimaniyah, foreigners and others needing to leave sped to the airport before the ban took effect, while Kurds who were abroad for business or tourism rushed home.
"There have been masses of people for two days," said airport spokesperson Dana Mohammad Said, adding that the airport remained open for domestic flights.
An Iraqi Airways flight to Baghdad took off from Arbil at 7pm, an AFP correspondent said.