BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's government ordered its forces to reopen Baghdad airport on Friday after the private British company that polices it closed the passenger terminal in a dispute over unpaid bills.
Global Strategies Group, which closed the airport at dawn in an effort to recover six months of fees due from the government, said, however, that only its staff were qualified to screen bags and passengers so planes would remain grounded.
There were no civilian flights on Friday and it was not clear when flights would resume even though acting Transport Minister Esmat Amer had insisted flights would resume within hours because the dispute over fees had been settled on Thursday.
"My forces have entered the airport," Amer told Reuters, adding that Global's closure of the terminal for the second time in three months had come as a surprise.
"The airport is not closed. We are taking some technical measures now and will soon resume the flights, maybe in the next few hours ... We will not let the airport be closed in any way ... It is a matter of sovereignty for us."
Speaking heatedly on another line, he could be heard saying: "No passenger should leave the airport. All of them will fly."
Alaa Abdul Ghani, flight control chief at Baghdad's main link to the world, said state-owned Iraqi Airways would fly.
"Baghdad International Airport reopened to passengers at 1 p.m. (0900 GMT) by order of the Transport Ministry. They asked us to tell passengers to proceed to the checkpoint," he said.
But Giles Morgan, a spokesman for Global Strategies Group which has guarded the airport with about 550 staff since mid-2004, said the ministry lacked the staff to run flights.
"They do not have the personnel who are trained to international standards," he said, pointing to security rules required by international airlines, most of which already do not fly to one of the world's most dangerous airports.
"Passenger, cargo screening will not happen ... You can't put on flights ... It's just not safe."
Global continues to guard the airport against insurgent attacks as normal and the only change on Friday was the closure of the terminal to passengers, Morgan said.
The airport was closed for two days in June in a similar row that led to new talks between the Transport Ministry and Global.
One of many private firms providing security to the military, government and private organizations, Global has some 2,000 security personnel in Iraq.
"Global has been in constant negotiations with senior members of the Iraqi government, which is currently not paying the company," the firm said in a statement. "Once payment has been made by the client, Global will resume its work and thus allow normal air operations to resume."
(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami and Alastair Macdonald)
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