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Iraq: Turkish Airlines ends flights to Sulaymaniyah in protest at alleged PKK ties

Discovery of apparent air corridor between Iraq and Syria has put spotlight on PUK's links to the Kurdish armed group
Bafel Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), at al-Salam Palace in Baghdad in October (AP)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

Turkish Airlines has suspended its flights to Iraqi Kurdistan’s Sulaymaniyah airport in April as a response to alleged growing ties between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), two Turkish sources familiar with the issue told Middle East Eye.

The sources said the apparent existence of an air corridor between Iraq and Syria allegedly carrying senior PKK fighters at the behest of PUK leader Bafel Talabani, which was revealed after two helicopters came down in Iraq last month, was key in the decision.

Talabani’s PUK is the second-largest party in the semi-autonomous region and the dominant force in Sulaymaniyah.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed militia spearheaded by PKK-linked groups, said last month that nine of its members died in the Eurocopter AS350 helicopters crash.

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Masrour Barzani said the helicopters belonged to his political rivals the PUK, which is believed to have ties with the PKK. However, Turkish sources alleged that the helicopters were rented through a local company by the US government and then given to the PUK.

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Those sources told MEE last month that it was important that KRG and Iraqi authorities reveal the alleged PUK connection to the flights, as is their responsibility.

Dana Mohammed, spokesperson for Sulaymaniyah airport, told a local media outlet that all Turkish Airlines flights between Sulaymaniyah and Turkey have been cancelled for April.

"No explanation has been given to us, but we have asked Turkey to clarify the reason for this decision by email," she reportedly said.  

Then on Wednesday, the Turkish foreign ministry said flights would be suspended until 3 July. It linked the decision to "the intensification" of the PKK's activities in Sulaymaniyah and its "penetration" of the airport, "thus threatening flight security".

'The real issue isn’t the helicopters carrying the PKK. The issue is the Talabani tribe’s general support to the PKK'

- Turkish source

“The real issue isn’t the helicopters carrying the PKK,” one Turkish source told MEE. “The issue is the Talabani tribe’s general support to the PKK.”

The PKK, a Kurdish separatist group, has been in conflict with the Turkish state since the 1980s, involving violence that has killed tens of thousands of people. Turkey, the US, and the EU have designated the PKK as a terror group due to the deadly attacks it has carried out on civilians.

Talabani has maintained silence on the helicopters issues following Barzani’s accusations. He only released a message of condolences, where he praised the SDF forces for their campaign against the Islamic State group, saying they “guarded the Kurdish holy land from terrorism, and left a legacy of great sovereignty”.

Bese Hozat, a co-chair of the supreme board that governs the PKK, praised Talabani last month for his efforts to unify Kurdish groups.

“A very strong stance of national unity emerged everywhere,” she told ANF News, a pro-PKK publication. “Many political parties and Kurdish groups issued meaningful messages on this issue. PUK chairman Talabani also had a very meaningful message.”

Hozat also criticized Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) for blocking the unification efforts of Kurdish groups and said the KDP was working with the “genocidal” Turkish state. “We can reach a Kurdish national union without them,” she said.

Iraq-Syria: Helicopter crash might have revealed a secret PKK air route 
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Mustafa Caner, a research fellow at Sakarya University’s Middle East Institute, says the relationship between the Talabani family and the PKK had been the focus of intense scrutiny due to its significance.

“Although the nature of their relationship has been erratic, it is generally acknowledged that the PUK and Talabani are more closely aligned with the PKK, in contrast to the KDP and Barzani, who have had occasional clashes with the terrorist group,” he told MEE.

“Furthermore, the PUK's ideological orientation is more compatible with that of the PKK.”  

Caner added that a considerable amount of evidence indicates that PKK fighters use Sulaymaniyah as a base for logistics operations, as it is easily accessible from the PKK’s headquarters in northern Iraq’s Qandil Mountains.

“Turkish officials are confident that the PKK has close ties with Talabani, and Sulaymaniyah is an area where the PKK can move around with ease,” he said.

Turkey imposed a similar flight ban to Sulaymaniyah between 2017 to 2019, asking local authorities to crack down against PKK-linked entities.

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