ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - An ban on international flights to Iraqi Kurdistan, imposed by Iraq’s central government in retaliation for the region’s vote for independence, went into effect at 6:00 pm (1500 GMT) on Friday, Iraqi state TV said.
Baghdad had given the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) until 6:00 p.m. to hand over control of its international airports in Erbil and Sulaimaniya to avoid the ban. The KRG said it would not comply.
The last international flight from Erbil, the seat of the KRG, took off at about 5:00 pm (1400 GMT), an airport official said. The Zagrosjet flight was heading to Istanbul.
Only passengers travelling domestically were still trickling into Erbil airport after 4 p.m. as the flight ban does not affect flights between Iraq and the Kurdish region.
One of the last planes to arrive on Friday before the international flight ban took effect came from Turkey, carrying the bodies of Kurdish migrants who drowned last week off Turkey’s Black Sea coast while trying to reach Europe.
Dozens of men and women dressed in black showed up to receive the bodies of their relatives.
Hassan Mohammad, from Rania province near Sulaimaniya, came for his 19-year-old nephew, Alan Ahmed.
“He wanted to get to Europe to have a better life,” Mohammad said, adding that despite the flight ban the Iraqi federal government had helped to repatriate his nephew’s body.
A group of about 200 young people gathered nearby with Kurdish flags and colourful balloons which read “Yes for Kurdistan” in both English and Arabic. Rally organizers said they had come to show support for Kurdistan in the face of Iraq’s measures.
A small group of travellers complained that they had not been notified early enough of the cancellation of a Pegasus flight to Ankara that had been due to take off 10 minutes before the ban took effect.
“I called the airline office in Ankara, and they swore that the flight was taking off,” said Salma, who had planned to travel to the Turkish capital with her three sisters and three children. “Now what are we supposed to do?”
The family were given the option of flying to Ankara from Baghdad on Saturday, but it would cost $1,000 (747.83 pounds) per ticket which Salma, who declined to give her last name, said the family could not afford.
“I guess this is independence,” she said.
Reporting by Raya Jalabi; editing by Andrew Roche and Gareth Jones