October 16, 2017 / 1:41 PM / 9 months ago

Turkey to close air space to N.Iraq, work with Baghdad on border

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey said on Monday it would close its air space to Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region and work to hand control of the main border crossing into the region to the central Iraqi government.

The attempt to put the Habur border gate under control of the Iraqi central government signals a change of policy from Ankara, which had previously threatened to close the gate after Kurds in northern Iraq voted for independence.

The Habur gate is the main transit point between Turkey and Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government. The Sept. 25 referendum, in which Kurds in northern Iraq voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence, has alarmed Baghdad, Iraq’s neighbours and Western powers, all of whom fear further regional conflict could arise from the vote.

Ankara, which has been battling a three-decade insurgency in its own mainly Kurdish southeast, fears an independent Kurdish state on its borders would heighten separatist tension at home.

“Planes going to or coming from the Kurdistan Regional Government will not be able to use Turkish air space,” government spokesman Bekir Bozdag told a news conference following a cabinet meeting where the decisions were taken.

“The cabinet has decided to start work on handing over the control of Habur border gate to the Iraqi government,” he added.

Turkey tightened controls at the Habur border gate in the immediate aftermath of the referendum and suspended flights to northern Iraq. It has also held joint military exercises with Iraqi troops on the border.

However, it has not yet implemented threats to impose wider sanctions on the Kurdish region or to cut off the hundreds of thousands of barrels of Kurdish oil exported daily via Turkey to world markets.

The cabinet decision followed a meeting of Turkey’s security council, which was chaired by President Tayyip Erdogan and had advised the cabinet to take such steps.

The cabinet also took the advice of the security council and extended for another three months the state of emergency which was imposed after the failed coup attempt in July 2016.

The extension for a fifth term will ensure that Turkey will have spent nearly one and a half years under emergency rule.

Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay; Editing by David Dolan

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