Flights between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah resumed Saturday, according to aviation authorities, after a 16-month air blockade imposed by Ankara over an independence referendum.
Kurds in the administratively autonomous northern region overwhelmingly voted for independence in a non-binding referendum in September 2017 that infuriated Baghdad as well as Iraq’s neighbors, Turkey and Iran.
In retaliation, Baghdad and Ankara blocked international flights from the two main Iraqi Kurdish cities of Erbil and Sulaimaniyah.
Almost all those restrictions were lifted last year but Turkey - which fears its own Kurdish minority could be inspired to push for independence - had maintained its blockade on Sulaimaniyah until Saturday.
“Implementing the Turkish government’s decision to lift the air blockade on international flights from Sulaimaniyah, the first Turkish Airlines flight landed early this morning and returned to Turkey,” said Sulaimaniyah airport chief Taher Abdallah.
He said the blockade cost the airport more than $5 million in 2018.
Iraqi Airways would resume flights between Sulaimaniyah and Istanbul in the coming days, civil air authorities said.
That brings air traffic to and from the Iraqi Kurdish region back to its status before the 2017 referendum.
At the time, the federal government rejected the poll as “illegal,” imposed economic penalties and seized the disputed Kirkuk oil fields, halting exports.
But ties have improved markedly in recent months.
Authorities announced the resumption of oil exports from Kirkuk in November and last week, parliamentarians passed a 2019 budget guaranteeing Baghdad would pay the salaries of the Kurdish region’s public workers and Peshmerga armed forces.