By Syed Raza Hassan
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) suspended flights to Kabul on Thursday after what it called heavy-handed interference by Taliban authorities.
The suspension took place as the Taliban government ordered the airline, the only international carrier operating regularly out of the Afghan capital, to cut ticket prices to the levels of before the fall of the Western-backed Afghan government in August.
"We are suspending our flight operations to Kabul from today because of the heavy-handedness of the authorities," a PIA spokesman said.
Earlier, the Taliban warned PIA and Afghan carrier Kam Air that their Afghan operations risked being blocked unless they agreed to cut prices that have spiralled out of the reach of most Afghans.
With most airlines no longer flying to Afghanistan, tickets for flights to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, have been selling for as much as $2,500 on PIA, according to travel agents in Kabul, compared with $120-$150 before.
The Afghan transport ministry said in a statement prices on the route should "be adjusted to correspond with the conditions of a ticket before the victory of the Islamic Emirate" or the flights would be stopped.
It urged passengers and others to report any violations.
Flights between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been severely limited since Kabul airport was reopened last month in the wake of the chaotic evacuation of more than 100,000 Westerners and vulnerable Afghans following the Taliban victory.
Abdullah, a 26 year-old employee of a pharmaceuticals company, said the PIA flights had been "a tiny window" for Afghans trying to leave the country.
"We are in bad need of these flights. The borders are closed, now if the airport is closed, it is like we are all in a cage," he said.
PIA, which runs chartered flights to Kabul rather than regular commercial services, said it had maintained the flights on humanitarian grounds and faced insurance premiums of as much as $400,000 as Kabul was treated as a war zone by insurers.
No comment was immediately available from Kam Air.
PIA said that ever since the new Taliban government was formed, its staff in Kabul had faced last-minute changes in regulations and flight permissions and intimidating behaviour from Taliban commanders.
It said its country representative had been held at gunpoint for hours in one incident and was only freed after the Pakistan embassy in Kabul intervened.
With a mounting economic crisis adding to worries about Afghanistan's future under the Taliban, there has been heavy demand for flights out, made worse by repeated problems at land border crossings into Pakistan.
The main passport office in Kabul has been besieged by people trying to get travel documents since it reopened this month.
The flights have also been used by international officials and aid workers travelling to Kabul.
(Reporting by Syed Raza Hassan, Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Toby Chopra, William Maclean and John Stonestreet)