Iraq government stops Turkish minister landing in Kurdistan

ANKARA Tue Dec 4, 2012 12:28pm EST

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ANKARA (Reuters) - A plane carrying Turkey's energy minister to an energy conference in Iraqi Kurdistan was denied permission to land on Tuesday by the central government in Baghdad, underlining its strained relations with Ankara and Iraq's Kurdish region.

The minister's private plane, which was en route from Istanbul to the northern Iraqi city of Arbil, was forced to land in the Turkish city of Kayseri, southeast of the capital Ankara.

Iraq's civilian aviation authority said it had refused the plane permission because it had not complied with regulations.

"We haven't forbidden any plane to enter our airspace ... but we have special regulations and laws which organize the flight of certain planes," said Nasser Bandar, manager of the aviation authority.

"The UAE, Jordan and Turkey forwarded their demand to get permission for private flights, and we refused the three requests as they were not going along with Iraqi laws and regulations," he said.

The fact that Turkey's energy minister was en route to participate in a conference on energy in the north would likely have aggravated the government in Baghdad.

Baghdad, which has been locked in its own long-running feud over oil and land rights with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north, has been riled by Ankara's recent moves aimed at forging closer ties with the Iraqi Kurds.

Ankara and Baghdad have also accused each other of inciting sectarian tension and have summoned each others' ambassadors in tit-for-tat manoeuvres.

STRATEGIC ALLIANCE

Turkey, which shares a border with Iraqi Kurdistan, has increasingly courted Iraqi Kurds as its relations with Baghdad have soured and while Ankara is a major investment and trading partner for the whole country, most business is with the north.

Kurdistan has also been taking steps towards easing its reliance on Baghdad in the sale of its oil and gas, further irritating the Iraqi government which says it has the sole right to export oil and gas produced throughout Iraq.

An oil pipeline pumping about 60,000 bpd already feeds directly from Kurdistan's Tawke oilfield into the main pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, and more are due to follow. Turkey also began importing crude oil by truck from Kurdistan this year in exchange for diesel.

KRG spokesman Safeen Dizayee said he believed the air regulations had only been introduced the previous day and hoped there had been no separate motive behind the move.

"It is new to us, we were not aware of it. We sincerely hope the reason behind this is actually this technical issue and nothing more," Dizayee said.

Speaking to Turkish media after landing in Kayseri, Yildiz said he was in talks with Iraq over the incident and that he believed the breakdown in communication would be repaired.

"I believe this interruption in communication will be resolved. I believe our colleagues in the central Iraqi government will treat this subject with sensitivity," Turkish media reported Yildiz as saying.

"All our projects, wherever in Iraq they may be, are about normalizing the whole of Iraq. There will be an investigation. We are meeting with the (Turkish) foreign ministry. I am talking to Iraq. We will see what comes out of this," he said.

Relations with Baghdad have also been strained by Turkish air strikes on northern Iraq on bases of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Turkish Kurd militant group. Baghdad asked Turkey to stop attacking the PKK on its soil after Ankara stepped up operations following a rise in militant attacks inside Turkey.

The PKK, considered a terrorist group by Ankara, the United States and the European Union, has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984 for greater self rule in Turkey's southeast.

(Additional reporting by Isabel Coles in Arbil and Suadad al-Salhy in Baghdad; Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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