01:22 - Source: CNN
92% support Kurdish referendum
CNN —  

Iraq’s central government stepped up pressure on authorities in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region on Thursday after voters decisively backed independence in a disputed referendum.

The Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority told international flight operators that all flights to and from Erbil and Sulaimaniya airports in Iraqi Kurdistan would be suspended from 6 p.m. Friday (11 a.m. ET).

The order, sent in an email seen by CNN, said domestic flights operated by Iraqi airlines were exempt from the decision.

Turkey’s AtlasGlobal, Pegasus and Turkish Airlines, Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines, EgyptAir and Royal Jordanian airlines announced Wednesday that they were are suspending flights to the area, in compliance with Baghdad’s request.

These airlines constitute the majority of international air traffic at these two airports, according to data on the airports’ websites.

Neighboring Iran had previously ceased operations to and from the two airports before Monday’s referendum.

Passengers flying to Erbil wait at Ataturk International airport in Istanbul on Thursday.
Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images
Passengers flying to Erbil wait at Ataturk International airport in Istanbul on Thursday.

More than 92% of the roughly 3 million people who went to the polls earlier this week opted for independence, according to official results announced by the Kurdish electoral commission on Wednesday.

The vote was held across the semi-autonomous region and in disputed territories including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a flashpoint city claimed by both Iraqi Kurdistan and the central government. The vote has put Kurdish authorities on a collision course with Baghdad.

Related: After defying ISIS, ‘Kurds aren’t afraid of anything’

Three-day deadline looms

On Wednesday, the Iraqi Council of Representatives approved a number of punitive measures against the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, for going ahead with the plebiscite.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi has given the KRG until Friday to hand over control of its airports to the federal government.

Turkey, which hosts a sizable Kurdish minority and fears the ballot could spur separatist movements there, has also consistently condemned the referendum. On Wednesday it agreed to deal only with Baghdad on oil exports.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim confirmed this in a phone call to his Iraqi counterpart, according to a statement from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office.

Since a trilateral agreement involving Iran, Iraq and Turkey was signed last Friday, Turkish officials have stated on several occasions they will work only with the central government in Baghdad.

“We were told that from now on border crossings, airports, energy, oil pipelines and the like are under the control of the central government.  For any steps we take, the legitimate administration we will deal with is the one in Baghdad, it is the central government,” Yildirim said on Monday. 

After meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ankara, Turkey, on Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told journalists the two leaders agreed on “the importance of territorial integrity both in Iraq and Syria,” restating his position that “the referendum does not have legitimacy.”

CNN’s Hamdi Alkhshali in Atlanta, Muwafaq Mohammed in Erbil, Gul Tuysuz in Istanbul, Jomana Karadsheh in Amman and Sarah El Sirgany in Abu Dhabi contributed to this report. Lauren Said-Moorhouse wrote from London.