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Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways suspends flights to northern Iraq's Irbil, citing security concerns

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates - One of the Middle East's largest airlines, Etihad Airways, said Thursday that security concerns had prompted it to suspend all of its flights to the northern Iraqi city of Irbil.

The Abu Dhabi-based airline is the latest international carrier to re-route its flights amid intensified militant advances in the area. The region's biggest airliner, the Dubai-based Emirates, suspended flights to Irbil earlier this week.

Etihad said its four flights a week to Irbil were being halted until further notice because of "the possibility of a deteriorating security situation" as a result of conflict between Iraqi security forces and fighters of an al-Qaida breakaway group.

In just the past five days, Islamic State fighters claim they seized a total of 17 cities, towns and targets in northern Iraq. They have also seized large amounts of military hardware.

Both Etihad and Emirates, however, say they will still fly to Iraq's capital, Baghdad and the southern city of Basra.

Irbil and the surrounding Kurdish enclave are generally safer than many other parts of Iraq, though militants have clashed with Kurdish security forces on the edges of the largely autonomous Kurdish region. The city has attracted much of the international investment that has flowed into Iraq following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

This month the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration modified its restriction on U.S. airlines flying over Iraq. The FAA raised the minimum altitude a plane should fly over Iraq to 30,000 feet (9,145 metres) or higher from its previous 20,000-foot (6,095 metre) provision due to "the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict" there.

Other airlines have also followed suit following the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines plane over Ukraine in June. Several European carriers including Virgin Atlantic, KLM and Air France reworked flight plans over Iraq as a precaution against possible militant strikes.

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