Turkey rejects Greece accusation of Mediterranean violation

Turkey rejects Greece accusation of Mediterranean violation

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Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during an event in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, July 21, 2020. (Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool) more >

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Associated Press

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) – Turkey on Wednesday rejected claims by Greece that its oil-and-gas research vessels were encroaching on Greek waters in the eastern Mediterranean and said it would continue to defend its legitimate rights and interests in the region.

A Foreign Ministry statement, however, also renewed a call by Ankara for dialogue to resolve the dispute between the two NATO allies.

Turkey announced plans Tuesday to dispatch search vessels into disputed waters in the Mediterranean, raising tensions between the neighbors and ignoring calls from European nations to avoid the action. Turkish authorities said the research vessel Oruc Reis and two support vessels would carry out operations through Aug. 2 in waters south of the Greek islands of Rhodes, Karpathos and Kastelorizo.

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State-run television in Greece said the country’s armed forces had been placed on a state of readiness.

An overnight statement by the Greek foreign ministry called the Turkish notification “illegal,” while authorities there issued a counter-notification declaring the Turkish navy’s notice for seismic survey in the area as “invalid.”

NATO allies Greece and Turkey are at odds over drilling rights in the region, with the European Union and the United States increasingly critical of Ankara’s plans to expand exploration and drilling operations in the coming weeks into areas Athens claims as its own.

Turkey has accused Greece of trying to exclude it from the benefits of oil and gas finds in the Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean, arguing that sea boundaries for commercial exploitation should be divided between the Greek and Turkish mainland and not include the Greek islands on an equal basis.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry denounced what it called a “maximalist continental shelf claim,” insisting that they were “against international law, legal precedent and court decisions.”

The ministry statement added that the maritime area where Oruc Reis would conduct research was “within the limits of the continental shelf that our country has notified to the United Nations.” It said an exploration license was given to the Turkish state-run oil company, TPAO, in 2012.

Greece is pressing other EU member states to prepare “crippling sanctions″ against Turkey if it proceeds with the oil-and-gas exploration plans.

Minister: Iraq to face severe shortages as river flows drop

Minister: Iraq to face severe shortages as river flows drop

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A child walks on the bank of the Shatt al-Arab waterway in Basra, Iraq on July 13, 2020. Iraq’s minister of water resources said Thursday, July 16, 2020 that severe shortages loom ahead if Iraq and neighboring Turkey fail to … more >

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By SAMYA KULLAB and RASHID YAHYA

Associated Press

Friday, July 17, 2020

DOHUK, Iraq (AP) – Iraq’s minister of water resources says his country will face severe water shortages if agreements are not forged with neighboring Turkey over Ankara’s irrigation and dam projects that have decreased river inflows to Iraq’s parched plains.

Descending from the mountains of southeast Turkey and coursing through Syria and then Iraq before emptying out in the Persian Gulf, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are Iraq’s main water source and essential to for agriculture. But tensions have mounted over the years as Turkey pressed ahead with dam projects to meet its domestic electricity demands.

In turn, this has directly impacted water flows into Iraq.

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Measurements of inflows from the border with Turkey in northern Iraq were 50% below average this year, Iraq’s Water Resources Minister Mahdi Rashid Al-Hamdani said in an interview with the Associated Press on Thursday. This year also saw a reduction in annual rainfall by 50% compared to last year, he said.

“We asked our Ministry of Foreign Affairs to send an urgent message to Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to ask them what is the reason for the drop in our flow,” he said.

Iraq is still waiting for a response, he added.

With the impacts of climate change, as well as future hydroelectric projects in Turkey, the ministry estimates Iraq will face a shortage of 10.5 billion cubic meters of water by 2035, according to an internal study, al-Hamdani said.

Ordinary Iraqis have yet to fill the effects of the drop, partly because of the reservoir at the Hadhitha dam on the Euphrates River in Iraq, which is compensating for the shortage, he said.

In Fishkhabour, along the border with Turkey, Ramadan Hamza, a senior expert on water strategy and policy at the University of Dohuk, eyed the drop in river flows with concern.

“The water level of the Tigris River was around 600 cubic meters per second,” he said. After Turkey built the so-called Ilisu Dam, “it dropped to around 300-320.”

The Ilisu Dam on the Tigris, part of a megaproject by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is at the heart of the dispute. The dam, which became operational in May after three years of delay, is to be one of 22 power dams in southeastern Turkey. Negotiations over water allocations resumed when Ankara began to make progress on plans to fill the Illisu reservoir last year but have since stalled.

Hezha Abdulwahed, the director of Dohuk’s water department, said water levels had dropped by 8 billion cubic meters, compared to water flows in April 2019.

Iraq needs to put pressure on Turkey to release its share of water,” Hamza said.

A recent report by the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration found that water levels of the Tigris and Euphrates are decreasing at an “unprecedented rate,” that could result in the forced displacement of entire Iraqi communities.

Water shortages, pollution and high levels of salinity lead to many Iraqis falling sick and prompted violent protests in the summer of 2018 across southern Iraq.

Many letters were sent to Ankara over its plans for the Ilisu dam, said al-Hamdani, but Turkey only responded with “many excuses.”

“They say it’s their right to build a dam and we argue that it is is harmful to our rights to water,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic postponed a face-to-face meeting with Turkish officials. The Iraqis have requested a video conference in the meantime to revive talks. Last year, an envoy of Erdogan came to Baghdad with an action plan to improve data sharing and management of water resources.

A Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to talk to journalists, said negotiations to ensure a certain amount of water allocations to Iraq are difficult because of climate change issues.

At one point, Iraq demanded Turkey ensure at least 500 cubic meters per second. “But inside Turkey, the Tigris sometimes doesn’t go above 350 on average,” he said. “It’s hard to speak about certain limits of water – it’s so unpredictable now.”

In the absence of an international agreement, it also unclear what responsibilities Turkey has toward Iraq’s water supply. But al-Hamdani said there are international laws Iraq could turn to if needed to pressure Ankara.

Turkey’s position will change,” al-Hamdani said on a hopeful note.

___

Kullab reported from Baghdad.

EU, Turkey clash over Hagia Sophia, Mediterranean drilling

EU, Turkey clash over Hagia Sophia, Mediterranean drilling

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European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell reads a statement as he arrives for a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, Monday, July 13, 2020. European Union foreign ministers meet for the first time … more >

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By RAF CASERT

Associated Press

Monday, July 13, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) – Turkey and the European Union clashed on Monday over Ankara’s decision to change the status of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque and its continued energy exploration in disputed Mediterranean waters.

After their their first face-to-face meeting in months, the 27 EU foreign ministers said that they “condemned the Turkish decision to convert such an emblematic monument as the Hagia Sophia,” EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said.

“This decision will inevitably fuel the mistrust, promote renewed division between religious communities and undermine our efforts at dialog and cooperation,” he said after the meeting of EU foreign ministers.

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He said there was “broad support to call on the Turkish authorities to urgently consider and reverse this decision.” Hagia Sophia was originally built in Istanbul as a Christian cathedral, and the pope and others have expressed their sadness and criticism of the move by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said Monday that the EU was “faced with a challenge and insult” meted out by Erdogan.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu hit back and rejected international intervention concerning its decision to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.

“Hagia Sophia was left as a legacy as a mosque and must be used as a mosque,” Cavusoglu told state broadcaster TRT. “We strongly reject comments that amount to an intervention in Turkey’s sovereign rights.”

Borrell was in Turkey last week where he also discussed Ankara’s disputes with Greece and Cyprus over energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean region. Turkey has dispatched warship-escorted vessels to drill for gas in an area where Cyprus insists it has exclusive rights. The Turkish government has said it’s acting to protect its interests in the area’s natural resources and those of Turkish Cypriots.

Petsas said that Turkish drilling was blatantly contrary to international obligations and international law” and said that Greece would be looking to prepare a list for possible “political, diplomatic and financial” sanctions.

Again, Cavusoglu stood firm.

“If Greece were to turn away from its maximalist ways and agree to a fair sharing (of rights), and if it were to convince Cyprus to a fair sharing of revenues (from the exploration of natural resources), then 80% of our problems would solved,” Cavusoglu said.

Borrell said there were no immediate decisions at Monday’s meeting but that the ministers would revisit the issue at their next meeting in Berlin in August.

Even as the rift between both sides was deepening, the 27 EU ministers couldn’t get that close among themselves either. It was their first in-person meeting since the coronavirus lockdown set in, but because of social distancing rules, there was only room for lots of elbow bumping for a greeting and little reading of lips, since ministers were wearing masks around the meeting table.

___

Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.

International rejection grows following Turkey’s decision to turn Hagia Sophia back into a mosque

International rejection grows following Turkey’s decision to turn Hagia Sophia back into a mosque

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People chant slogans following Turkey’s Council of State’s decision, outside the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul’s main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Friday, July 10, 2020.Turkey’s Council of State, threw its weight behind a petition … more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Friday, July 10, 2020

International rejection of a recent decision by Turkey to convert its prominent Hagia Sophia museum back into a mosque is growing, as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on Friday condemned the move.

The decision by Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan came after a court annulled a 1934 declaration that turned the former Greek Orthodox cathedral-turned-mosque into a museum.

The Hagia Sophia was known as the Roman Empire’s first Christian cathedral for nearly 1,000 years. It was converted into a mosque in 1453 after Turkey’s conquest by the Ottoman Empire and had served as a museum for 86 years.

SEE ALSO: Turkish court rules Hagia Sophia can be turned into a mosque

Mr. Erdogan has rallied support around efforts to turn the controversial world heritage site back into a mosque despite international pushback, including from the U.S. and Orthodox Christian leaders.

On Friday, USCIRF Vice Chair Tony Perkins said in a statement that the commission “condemns the unequivocal politicization of the Hagia Sophia, an architectural wonder that has for so long stood as a cherished testament to a complex history and rich diversity.”

“It is regrettable that the Turkish government has proceeded with these steps, and with such disregard for the feelings of its own religious minority communities,” USCIRF Commissioner Nury Turkel added. “This decision comes at a time of increased fear and insecurity due to recent attacks on churches and other threats against religious and ethnic minorities and will only add to their sense of marginalization under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government.”

The move also caught pushback from Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides, a Greek Cypriot, who tweeted that Cyprus “strongly condemns Turkey’s actions on Hagia Sophia in its effort to distract domestic opinion and calls on Turkey to respect its international obligations.”

Ahead of the announcement to convert the museum, UNESCO called on Turkey to not alter with the “outstanding universal value” of the Hagia Sophia and asked Turkey to provide the group with “prior notification,” indicating that UNESCO could change the site’s world heritage status, CNN reported.

Turkish diplomat Hami Aksoy said in a statement that the country will guarantee “freedom of religion and belief,” and will protect “all cultural properties that we own without any distinction, including Hagia Sophia, within the framework of the tradition of tolerance stemming from our culture and history.”

Hospitals in Syria’s rebel area reduce services amid virus

Hospitals in Syria’s rebel area reduce services amid virus

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FILE – In this March 19, 2020 file photo, a member of a humanitarian aid agency disinfects inside Ibn Sina Hospital as prevention against the coronavirus in Idlib, Syria. Hospitals in Syria’s overcrowded opposition-held enclave are suspending non-emergency procedures and … more >

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By SARAH EL DEEB

Associated Press

Friday, July 10, 2020

BEIRUT (AP) – Hospitals in Syria’s overcrowded opposition-held enclave are suspending non-emergency procedures and outpatient services following the detection of the first case of coronavirus, a leading doctor in the area said Friday.

The regional education department also announced it was closing all schools.

The first case of COVID-19, a doctor in the area, was reported on Thursday in Idlib province, the last opposition-held part of Syria in a sliver of land bordering Turkey. The doctor was isolated and the hospital he worked in was shut down. The patients and medical staff he came in contact with have been quarantined.

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There have been major concerns of an outbreak in northwestern Syria, an area packed with more than 3 million people, many of them living in tents and encampments, and where health facilities have been devastated by Syria’s long civil war.

The first virus case in Idlib comes as moves by Russia, a major ally of the Syrian government, are threatening to shut down border crossing between the rebel-held enclave and Turkey.

A vote on a resolution that would determine the fate of two border crossings with the enclave, and how long they remain open, is expected later Friday in the U.N. Security Council. Aid groups and residents of the enclave have warned of dire consequences of limiting or reducing U.N. cross-border aid to the area, already devastated by displacement and destruction from frequent government attacks.

Russia, which argues that aid should come through Damascus, wants to shut down one of two crossings with Turkey. Western nations are pushing to keep the two existing ones open.

On Friday, hours before the initial Security Council resolution on the aid was to expire, 31 trucks carrying medicine and other supplies crossed into northwestern Syria from Turkey through the crossing Russia wants to shut down. U.N. agencies have been stocking up aid and relief supplies in the enclave in recent few weeks, a sign of nervousness over continued access.

As the trucks were crossing into Syria, U.N. Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Cutts said 5,000 trucks had crossed the border in the last six years, monitored by the United Nations, and expressed hope the aid flow would continue.

“It is crucial that we keep this aid operation going,” he said in a video message. He later told reporters that the first case of COVID-19 in the opposition enclave “is a very big worry for us.”

“This has been a vital lifeline that has kept thousands and thousands of civilians alive for the last few years. This is not the time for us to be reducing the aid operations. We have to increase the access not reduce it,” Cutts said. He said 11 of the trucks were carrying medical aid.

Munzer Khalil, the head of the Idlib health directorate, said the measures to suspend non-emergency procedures and reduce services in Idlib were taken to raise the medical staff’s level of readiness and show the public how serious the matter is. The measures will last at least a week.

The doctor diagnosed with the virus is a 39-year old who works in both Idlib and rural areas in neighboring Aleppo province. He had seen several patients, so contact tracing and testing is underway, Khalil said.

Fadi Hakim, of the Syrian American Medical Society, said the infected doctor is in isolation in Bab al-Hawa hospital but his symptoms remain mild.

Schools in the area will close as of Saturday until further notice, suggesting a return to remote learning, which had been in place until earlier this month.

Testing has been a major issue in the aid-dependent region, where one lab is in charge of carrying out virus tests. Some testing has been also done through Turkey, which has troops inside the enclave.

In government-held areas in Syria, authorities have recorded 394 cases, including 16 virus-related deaths. In Kurdish-held areas in Syria’s northeast, where testing facilities are limited, about half a dozen cases have been reported.

“People have been lax” when it comes to taking precautions, Khalil said of the area’s residents. “We want to use this period to raise awareness and to show how serious it is and to finish the preparedness of hospitals.”

Turkish court rules Hagia Sophia can be turned into a mosque

Turkish court rules Hagia Sophia can be turned into a mosque

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In this Sunday, May 10, 2015 file photo, visitors walk towards the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, an UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Istanbul’s main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. Turkey’s Council of State, the country’s … more >

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By Suzan Fraser

Associated Press

Friday, July 10, 2020

Turkey’s highest administrative court on Friday issued a ruling that paves the way for the government to convert Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia – a former cathedral-turned-mosque that now serves as a museum – back into a Muslim house of worship.

The Council of State threw its weight behind a petition brought by a religious group and annulled a 1934 cabinet decision that turned the 6th-century building into a museum.

Dozens of people who awaited the court’s ruling outside the Hagia Sophia jubilantly chanted “Allah is great!” when the news came out. Orthodox Christians expressed deep dismay.

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Executive orders are not laws

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has demanded that the the hugely symbolic world heritage site should be turned back into a mosque despite widespread international criticism, including from the United States and Orthodox Christian leaders. The move could also deepen tensions with neighboring Greece.

Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides, a Greek Cypriot, posted on his official Twitter account that Cyprus “strongly condemns Turkey’s actions on Hagia Sophia in its effort to distract domestic opinion and calls on Turkey to respect its international obligations.”

Christodoulides said Turkey’s “escalating, flagrant violation of its international obligations is manifested in its decision to alter the designation of Hagia Sophia, a world heritage site that is a universal symbol of the Orthodox faith.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was scheduled to deliver an address to the nation later on Friday.

Nationalist and conservative groups have long been yearning to hold prayers at Hagia Sophia, which they regard as part of the Muslim Ottoman legacy. Others believe the UNESCO World Heritage site should remain a museum, as a symbol of Christian and Muslim solidarity.

The group that brought the case to court had contested the legality of the 1934 decision by the modern Turkish republic’s secular government ministers and argued that the building was the personal property of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Istanbul in 1453.

The court ruled that Hagia Sophia was the property of a foundation managing the Sultan’s assets and was opened up to the public as a mosque.

The Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, considered the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, warned in late June that the building’s conversion into a mosque “will turn millions of Christians across the world against Islam.”

Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, called for “prudence” and the preservation of the “current neutral status” for the Hagia Sophia, which he said was one of Christianity’s “devoutly venerated symbols.” In a statement this week, he said: “Russia is a country with the majority of the population professing Orthodoxy, and so, what may happen to Hagia Sophia will inflict great pain on the Russian people.”

U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo said last month that the landmark should remain a museum to serve as bridge between faiths and cultures. His comments sparked a rebuke from Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, which said Hagia Sophia was a domestic issue of Turkish national sovereignty.

Erdogan, a devout Muslim, has frequently used the Hagia Sophia issue, which sits at the heart of Turkey’s religious-secular divide, to drum up support for his Islamic-rooted party. He has pledged to revert the structure’s status to a mosque several times but said his government would await the court’s decision before taking steps.

Some Islamic prayers have been held in the museum in recent years and in a major symbolic move, Erdogan recited the opening verse of the Quran in the Hagia Sophia in 2018.

Built under Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia was the main seat of the Eastern Orthodox church for centuries, where emperors were crowned amidst ornate marble and mosaic decorations.

Four minarets were added to the terracotta-hued structure with cascading domes and the building was turned into an imperial mosque following the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople – the city that is now Istanbul.

The building opened its doors as a museum in 1935, a year after the Council of Ministers’ decision.

Mosaics depicting Jesus, Mary and Christian saints that were plastered over in line with Islamic rules were uncovered through arduous restoration work for the museum. Hagia Sophia was the most popular museum in Turkey last year, drawing more than 3.7 million visitors.

News reports have said the conversion could occur in time for prayers on July 15, when Turkey marks the quashing of a coup attempt in 2016.

A poll conducted in June by Istanbul Economy Research showed 46.9 percent of respondents favored Hagia Sophia being opened to Muslim worship while 38.8 percent said it should remain a museum. Thirteen percent said it should be open to worship for all religions.

__

Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul and Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, contributed.

Russia, Turkey seeking immediate Libya cease-fire: Report

Russia, Turkey seeking immediate Libya cease-fire: Report

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In this photo provided by Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, welcomes Libya’s parliament speaker Aguila Saleh for talks in Moscow, Russia, Friday, July 3, 2020. Russia’s top diplomat met Friday with the speaker of … more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Russia and Turkey are reportedly trying to establish an immediate cease-fire deal in the conflict in Libya, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday, as quoted by Russia’s Interfax news outlet.

Libya — which has been locked in a civil war since 2014 — has gone without a stable government since a 2011 rebellion ousted and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Mr. Lavrov said that the Russian-backed Libyan National Army (LNA) has approved a cease-fire agreement and is ready to sign. He said he hopes that Turkey will urge Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) to sign as well.

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The United Nations in recent years recognized the GNA in Tripoli born out of U.N.-mediated talks in 2015.

Qatar and Italy have also supported Tripoli, although Turkey has emerged as its biggest backer. On the other side, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, France and Egypt are seen to back the LNA’s rebel commander, Khalifa Haftar.

Cyprus: EU partners aim to rein in Turkey’s ‘expansionism’

Cyprus: EU partners aim to rein in Turkey’s ‘expansionism’

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Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, right, and Josep Borrell Fontelles, High Representative and Vice-President of the European Commission, speak during a joint news conference, in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, July 6, 2020. Turkey’s Foreign Minister on Monday called on the European … more >

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By MENELAOS HADJICOSTIS

Associated Press

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) – Cyprus and its European Union partners are working to rein in Turkey’s “expansionist policy” in the eastern Mediterranean amid heightened tensions over an offshore search for hydrocarbons, the island nation’s president said Tuesday.

President Nicos Anastasiades said that the 27-member bloc needs to take stock of how much leeway it will give an “insolent” Turkey that wants to control the region.

Anastasiades’ remarks came a day after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country would “reciprocate” if the EU takes measures censuring Turkey for carrying out a gas search in waters where Cyprus has exclusive economic rights.

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“Unfortunately, we’re talking about an agitator that’s seeking to dominate the entire eastern Mediterranean and place under its control a number of countries that ring the eastern Mediterranean,” Anastasiades said.

“This is incomprehensible and unacceptable not only on the basis of international justice, but also based on customary friendly relations that neighboring countries should hold.”

Turkey doesn’t recognize Cyprus as a state and has dispatched warship-escorted ships to drill for gas in Cyprus‘ exclusive economic zone, including in areas where the Cypriot government has licensed international energy companies like French Total and Italy’s Eni to drill.

Turkey claims almost half of Cyprus‘ economic zone and insists it’s acting to protect its interests and those of breakaway Turkish Cypriots to the area’s energy reserves.

Cyprus was ethnically split in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Only Turkey recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence. Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, but only the internationally recognized south enjoys full membership benefits.

Cavusoglu held talks Monday with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who traveled in a bid to ease tensions. Turkey’s top diplomat said Ankara expects the bloc to act as an “honest broker” with regard to energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean instead of expressing its backing for Cyprus‘ rights.

Borrell said EUTurkey relations aren’t “passing through the best moment” and called for increased cooperation and dialogue.

Turkey convicts 4 human rights activists of terror charges

Turkey convicts 4 human rights activists of terror charges

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Protesters from Amnesty International stage a protest outside a court in Istanbul, Friday, July 3, 2020, where the trial of 11 prominent human rights activists for terror-related charges and adjourned proceedings was continuing. The banner reads in Turkish: ‘Justice for … more >

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Associated Press

Friday, July 3, 2020

ISTANBUL (AP) – A Turkish court on Friday convicted Amnesty International’s former Turkey chairman, Taner Kilic, of membership in a terror organization and sentenced him to more than six years in prison.

The court also convicted three other human rights activists – Gunal Kursun, Idil Eser and Ozlem Dalkiran – of charges of aiding a terror group, sentencing them to two years and one month each. Seven other activists, including German citizen Peter Steudtner and Swede Ali Gharavi, were acquitted of the charges.

Ten of the activists were detained in a police raid in July 2017 while attending a digital security training workshop on Buyukada island, off Istanbul. The 11th activist, Kilic, was detained separately a month earlier in the city of Izmir.

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Ten defendants were charged with aiding terrorist organizations, including the network led by a U.S.-based cleric, which the Turkish government blames for the 2016 coup attempt and has designated as a terror group.

Kilic was accused of membership in cleric Fethullah Gulen’s network. Gulen denies allegations that he engineered the coup attempt.

Their trial heightened concerns about Turkey’s treatment of human rights defenders and helped sour Turkey’s relations with European nations, notably Germany.

Amnesty International condemned the ruling as a “crushing blow for human rights and for justice” in Turkey.

“Today, we have borne witness to a travesty of justice of spectacular proportions,” said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s Turkey researcher who observed the hearing. “The court’s verdict defies logic and exposes this three-year trial as the politically motivated attempt to silence independent voices.”

The four convicted activists, who were released from jail pending the outcome, were expected to appeal the verdict. All 11 defendants maintained their innocence throughout the trial.

Gardner said: “This case has been a litmus test for the Turkish justice system. As such, it is tragic to see the part it has played and continues to play in criminalizing the act of standing up for human rights.”

___

This story has been corrected to show that the three other human rights activists were sentenced to two years and one month, not one year and one month.

Turkey demands French apology over Med naval incident

Turkey demands French apology over Med naval incident

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Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, right, and Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas greet each other by using their elbows before a meeting, in Berlin, Thursday, July 2, 2020. (Cam Ozdel/Turkish Foreign Ministry via AP, Pool) more >

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Associated Press

Thursday, July 2, 2020

BERLIN (AP) – Turkey’s foreign minister on Thursday demanded an apology from France over its depiction of a standoff between ships from the two countries in the Mediterranean Sea that prompted Paris to suspend its involvement in a NATO naval operation.

France says its frigate Courbet was “lit up” three times by Turkish naval targeting radar on June 10 when it tried to approach a Tanzanian-flagged civilian ship suspected of involvement in arms trafficking. The ship was being escorted by three Turkish warships. The Courbet backed off after the confrontation.

At the time, the French frigate was part of the Sea Guardian mission, which is helping to provide maritime security in the Mediterranean. France said it was acting based on NATO information and that under the alliance’s rules of engagement such conduct is considered a hostile act.

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Turkey has denied harassing the Courbet. Both countries are NATO allies.

France has not told the truth to the EU or to NATO,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said during a visit to Berlin.

“The claims that our vessels locked onto (French vessels) are not true,” Cavusoglu added. “We have proven this with reports and documents and gave them to NATO. NATO saw the truth.”

NATO has confirmed only that investigators have submitted their report into the incident but said it was “classified” and declined to say what conclusions, if any, had been drawn.

“Instead of engaging in anti-Turkish activities and such leanings, France needs to make a sincere confession,” Cavusoglu said. “Our expectation from France at the moment is for it to apologize in a clear fashion, without ifs or buts, for not providing the correct information.”

The French government sent a letter Tuesday to NATO saying it is halting its participation in Sea Guardian “temporarily.”

France has accused Turkey of repeated violations of the U.N. arms embargo on Libya and branded the Turkish government as an obstacle to securing a cease-fire in the North African nation, which Turkey firmly denies.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, speaking alongside Cavusoglu, said “it is extremely important that relations between France and Turkey are constructive” because the countries need to work together on many issues. He said he hopes that “a constructive, open and very transparent dialogue” will be possible in the coming days and weeks to address their differences.

Museum or mosque? Turkey debates iconic Hagia Sofia’s status

Museum or mosque? Turkey debates iconic Hagia Sofia’s status

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In this Friday, March 24, 2017, file photo, people walk backdropped by the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul’s main tourist attractions, in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated … more >

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By Suzan Fraser and Ayse Wieting

Associated Press

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

ISTANBUL (AP) — In its more than 1,400-year existence, the majestic domed structure of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul has served as the Byzantine Empire’s main cathedral, a mosque under the Ottoman Empire and a museum under modern Turkey, attracting millions of tourists each year.

The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between nationalist, conservative and religious groups who are pressing for it to be reconverted back into a mosque and those who believe the UNESCO World Heritage site should remain a museum, underscoring Istanbul’s status as a bridge between continents and cultures.

On Thursday, Turkey’s Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, begins reviewing a request by a group devoted to reverting Hagia Sophia into a mosque. They are pressing to annul a 1934 decision by the Council of Ministers, led by secular Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, that turned the historic structure into a museum. A decision could come later Thursday or within two weeks, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

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President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who leads an Islamic-oriented party, has previously spoken about possibly changing Hagia Sophia’s status to a mosque but has said his government would await the Council of State’s decision.

Analysts believe that Erdogan – a populist, polarizing leader who in nearly two decades in office has frequently blamed Turkey’s secular elites for the country’s problems – is using the Hagia Sophia debate to consolidate his conservative base and to distract attention from Turkey’s substantial economic woes.

“This is not just a debate about a building,” said Soner Cagaptay, Turkey analyst for the Washington Institute. “Ataturk established Hagia Sophia as a museum to underline his vision of secularizing Turkey. And nearly 100 years later, Erdogan is trying to do the opposite.”

“(Erdogan) feels the pressure of popular support dwindling and therefore he wants to use issues that he hopes will remobilize his right-wing base around nativist, populist, anti-elitist topics,” said Cagaptay, author of the book “Erdogan’s Empire.”

Built under Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia was the main seat of the Eastern Orthodox church for centuries, where emperors were crowned amidst ornate marble and mosaic decorations.

Four minarets were added to the terracotta-hued structure with cascading domes and the building was turned into an imperial mosque following the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople – the city that is now Istanbul.

The building opened its doors as a museum in 1935, a year after the Council of Ministers’ decision.

Islamist groups, however, regard the symbolic structure as a legacy of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror and strongly object to its status as a museum. Large crowds have gathered outside Hagia Sophia on the May 31 anniversary of the city’s conquest to pray and demand that it be restored as a place of Muslim worship.

In the past few years, Turkey has been allowing readings from the Quran inside Hagia Sophia and Erdogan himself has recited prayers there. This year, he oversaw by video conference the recital of the “prayer of conquest” on the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest.

On Tuesday, Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, considered the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, noted that Hagia Sophia had served as a place of worship for Christians for 900 years and for Muslims for 500 years.

“As a museum, Hagia Sophia can function as a place and symbol of encounter, dialogue and peaceful coexistence of peoples and cultures, mutual understand and solidarity between Christianity and Islam,” he said.

Bartholomew added: “the potential conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque will turn millions of Christians across the world against Islam.”

Greece also strongly objects to attempts to change Hagia Sophia into a mosque, arguing that its designation as a historic monument must be maintained.

“I hope that President Erdogan does not proceed with something that will deeply hurt Turkey,” Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said. “This monument has endured many things and it will always return, but Turkey’s image will take a severe blow.”

Turkish media reports say the government was considering the possibility of keeping Hagia Sophia open to tourists even if it were turned into a mosque. That status would be similar to Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, which sits right across from Hagia Sophia and functions both as a house of worship and a tourist spot.

Hurriyet and other media have reported that Hagia Sophia could be reconverted into a mosque by a public holiday on July 15, when the country marks the fourth anniversary of the foiling of an attempted coup.

Cagaptay, the analyst said, the Hagia Sophia issue would likely have a “temporary impact in keeping Erdogan’s base with him.”

“(But) if he does not deliver economic growth, I can’t see him winning elections as he did in the past,” Cagaptay said.

___

Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed.

Turkey accuses France of dragging Libya into ‘chaos’

Turkey accuses France of dragging Libya into ‘chaos’

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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) – A Turkish government spokesman shot back at French President Emmanuel Macron and blamed France on Tuesday for allegedly “dragging Libya into chaos.”

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy accused Macron of “losing reason” and of making unfounded accusations against Turkey a day after the French leader said Ankara was involved in a “dangerous game” in Libya.

Macron also urged President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday to end Turkey’s activities in the the conflict-torn country.

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“Due to the support it has given to illegitimate structures for years, France has an important responsibility in dragging Libya into chaos, and in this respect, it is France that plays a dangerous game in Libya,” Aksoy said in a statement.

The comments referred to France’s support of Libya’s eastern-based forces, which under Khalifa Hifter launched an April 2019 offensive to try to take the capital of Tripoli.

Turkey backs the U.N.-recognized Tripoli-based administration in Libya. The Tripoli administration’s forces, with Turkish military support, gained the upper hand in the war this month after retaking the capital’s airport, all main entrance and exit points to the city and a string of key nearby towns.

Aksoy added, “The people of Libya will never forget the damages France has inflicted on this country.”

The ministry spokesman also called on France to end steps that he said “put the security and future of Libya, Syria and the eastern Mediterranean under risk” and to enter into a dialogue with Turkey, a NATO ally.

Tensions between France and Turkey escalated following a June 10 incident between Turkish warships and a French naval vessel in the Mediterranean, which France considers a hostile act under NATO’s rules of engagement. Turkey has denied harassing the French frigate.

France accused Ankara of repeated violations of the U.N. arms embargo on Libya.

Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a NATO-backed uprising toppled leader Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed.

Egyptian president says Libyan city Sirte a ‘red line’

Egyptian president says Libyan city Sirte a ‘red line’

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FILE – In this June 17, 2020, file photo, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, left, and Muhammed Tahir Siyala, Foreign Minister of Libya’s internationally-recognized government, speak at the airport, in Tripoli, Libya. Libya’s eastern-based forces have lost the chance to … more >

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By SAMY MAGDY and ANDREW WILKS

Associated Press

Saturday, June 20, 2020

CAIRO (AP) – Egypt’s president Saturday warned that an attempt by Turkey-backed forces in Libya to attack the strategic city of Sirte would cross a “red line” and trigger a direct Egyptian military intervention into the conflict.

Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, in televised comments, said Egypt could intervene in neighboring Libya with the intention of protecting its western border with the oil-rich country, and to bring stability, including establishing conditions for a cease-fire, to Libya.

El-Sissi warned that any attack on Sirte or the inland Jufra air base by forces loyal to the U.N.-supported but weak government in Tripoli would amount to crossing a “red line.”

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“Let’s stop at this (current) front line and start negotiations to reach a political solution to the Libyan crisis,” he said.

Calls seeking comment from a spokesman for the Tripoli-based government went unanswered. But Mohammed Ammry Zayed, a member of the presidential council, an advisory body for the U.N.-supported government, said they reject el-Sissi’s comments as a “continuity of the war against Libya’s people.”

El-Sissi spoke while inspecting Egypt’s air force and commando units stationed in the Sidi Barrani air base in the country’s western region along the porous desert border with Libya.

He said Egypt is ready to provide arms and training for Libyan tribes to “defend their country.” He told tribal representatives attending his speech that if Egypt were to intervene, its forces would advance with tribal leaders at the vanguard.

El-Sissi’s strong comments come after Libyan fighters allied with the Tripoli-based government earlier this month advanced toward Sirte, a move that ignored an Egyptian initiative, backed by the east-Libya camp, to stop fighting and embark on peace talks.

Taking Sirte would open the gate for the Tripoli-allied militias to advance even farther eastward, to potentially seize control of vital oil installations, terminals and oil fields that tribes allied with Hifter shut down earlier this year, cutting off Libya’s major source of income.

Libya has been in turmoil since 2011 when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.

Eastern-based forces under Hifter launched an offensive to try to take Tripoli in April last year. The chaos has steadily worsened as foreign backers have increasingly intervened, despite pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year.

Hifter’s forces are backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, while the Tripoli-allied militias are aided by Qatar, Italy and Turkey.

Tripoli-based forces with Turkish support gained the upper hand in the war earlier this month after retaking the capital’s airport, all main entrance and exit points to the city and a string of key towns near Tripoli. Turkish air support in the form of armed aerial drones in particular proved vital to turning the tide. Turkey has also sent Syrian militias to fight for the Tripoli government.

The withdrawal of Hifter’s fighters was painted by his commanders as a tactical measure to give a U.N.-backed peace process a chance.

But Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Saturday that Hifter’s forces have lost the chance to engage in a political solution to the conflict because Hifter ignored previous calls for a peaceful solution.

“On the contrary, he increased his aggression,” Cavusoglu said in a televised news conference.

“He’s losing, he’s doomed to lose,” he added. “It’s impossible for him to win. He had an opportunity for a political process. He lost that as well.”

Turkey, in addition to providing military support, signed a maritime deal in November with the Tripoli-based government that would give Ankara access to an economic zone across the Mediterranean, despite the objections from Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. Turkey has said it will begin exploring for natural resources there within months.

Last weekend, a summit between Cavusoglu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, which was to have focused on Libya, was postponed at the last minute.

___

Wilks reported from Ankara, Turkey.

Turkey says will work with Italy for Libya peace, slams EU

Turkey says will work with Italy for Libya peace, slams EU

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Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, right, and Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio say goodbye by using their elbows after their joint press conference, in Ankara, Turkey, Friday, June 19, 2020.(Fatih Aktas/Turkish Foreign Ministry via AP, Pool) more >

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By SUZAN FRASER

Associated Press

Friday, June 19, 2020

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) – Turkey and Italy will continue to work for a lasting peace and political solution in Libya, Turkey’s foreign minister said Friday, while slamming the European Union’s naval operation in the Mediterranean that tries to enforce a U.N. arms embargo on the conflict-torn country.

Mevlut Cavusoglu made the comments during a joint news conference with his Italian counterpart Luigi Di Maio. Italy and Turkey support the U.N.-backed government that is based in Tripoli against the rival forces under the command of Khalifa Hifter, who is supported by France, Russia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other key Arab countries.

Turkey says the EU’s naval operation – dubbed Irini – is focusing its efforts on the Tripoli-based administration and not enough on Hifter’s forces who launched an offensive in April 2019 to capture the capital.

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“We will continue to work with Italy for a last peace and a solution-oriented political process,” Cavusoglu told reporters, praising Italy for what he described as its “balanced stance” on Libya.

“Operation Irini is not balanced. It has never met any of the (Tripoli-based) Government of National Accord’s requests and concerns,” Cavusoglu said. He maintained that the operation ignores alleged “constant arms transfers to Hifter by France.”

Cavusoglu’s comments come amid growing tensions between Turkey and France over Libya. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday that the military alliance would investigate an incident between Turkish warships and a French naval vessel in the Mediterranean, as France accused Turkey of repeated violations of the U.N. arms embargo on Libya and branded Ankara an obstacle to securing a cease-fire there.

Di Maio said neither side in the Libyan conflict should have access to arms, adding that Rome welcomed indications that the sides were willing to negotiate.

He also defended the EU naval operation, describing it as “balanced.”

“The aim is to control the arrival of all armaments,” Di Maio said. “It is not a remedy for all ills, but at least it ensures that the embargo is observed.”

Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a NATO-backed uprising toppled leader Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since been split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups and different foreign governments.

Turkish military support to the U.N.-backed government has turned the tide in the conflict, driving back Hifter’s forces. Turkey has also sent Syrian militias to fight for the Tripoli government.

Turkey the key to unlocking NATO help for EU naval operation

Turkey the key to unlocking NATO help for EU naval operation

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FILE – In this Jan. 17, 2020, file, photo, Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter joins a meeting with the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias in Athens. Two families targeted in a campaign of violence more than five years ago are suing … more >

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By LORNE COOK

Associated Press

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) – Turkey is hindering European Union attempts to secure NATO’s help for the bloc’s naval operation in the Mediterranean as its tries to enforce a U.N. arms embargo on conflict-torn Libya, according to diplomats and officials in Brussels.

The operation – dubbed Irini, the Greek word for “peace” – was launched on April 1. The European Council said it has as “its core task the implementation of the U.N. arms embargo through the use of aerial, satellite and maritime assets.”

But Turkey, a NATO member whose efforts to join the EU have stalled, suspects that Irini focuses too much on the internationally recognized Libyan administration in Tripoli and not enough on rival forces under the command of Khalifa Hifter, who launched an offensive in April 2019 to capture the capital.

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Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a NATO-backed uprising toppled leader Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since been split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups and different foreign governments.

Hifter is supported by France, Russia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other key Arab countries. The government in Tripoli led by Fayez Sarraj is backed by Turkey, which sent troops and mercenaries to protect the capital in January, as well as Italy and Qatar.

On Tuesday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that the bloc and NATO “are discussing how to establish a new arrangement of cooperation – not participation – cooperation between Operation Irini and NATO, once again in our shared interest.”

“I hope that this cooperation agreement can be set up on the next days,” said Borrell, who is set to take part in a video conference with NATO defense ministers on Thursday.

But two NATO diplomats raised doubts about whether Turkey would let such an arrangement happen, and because the 30-nation military alliance operates on the basis of unanimity, NATO’s support cannot be guaranteed. The diplomats’ job descriptions do not allow them to speak on the record about in-house deliberations.

Asked Wednesday what the response might be, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said “we are looking into possible support, possible cooperation, but no decision has been taken. There is dialogue, contacts, addressing that as we speak.” He noted that NATO did provide support to the EU’s previous naval operation, which had a different mandate to Irini.

So far, Turkey does not seem to be entirely helpful to the EU operation, and a recent incident highlights the limitations of Irini, which only has two ships and three planes and needs more.

Borrell said that Irini personnel tried to make contact last week with a “suspicious” Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship that was being escorted by two Turkish warships. He said the ship refused to respond, but its Turkish escorts said the cargo was medical equipment bound for Libya.

He said the personnel contacted the Turkish and Tanzanian authorities to try to verify the information, and they also informed the United Nations. Borrell added that had Irini received no reply from any of the ships, it could have taken other action. He refused to elaborate.

“It is only in the cases in which the ship is not answering that we can take another kind of activities, we can do something more,” Borrell said. “We cannot do anything more than to transmit this information to the United Nations. It is the United Nations who gathers this information in order to control the implementation of the arms embargo.”

Israeli PM sets August target date to open skies to flight

Israeli PM sets August target date to open skies to flight

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis give joint statements in Jerusalem, Tuesday, June 16, 2020. (Debbie Hill, UPI Pool via AP) more >

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By

Associated Press

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Greek counterpart Tuesday he hoped to open Israel’s skies as soon as August after a prolonged closure due to the coronavirus, and that Greece would be among the first destinations for Israeli tourists.

The visit by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis marked his first overseas post-corona trip and the first official state visit of any foreign leader to Israel since the pandemic broke out several months ago, signaling the close ties between the Mediterranean neighbors.

Greece is among the most popular tourist destinations for Israelis, and Netanyahu said that Aug. 1 would be the “target date” for resuming travel.

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Greece and Cyprus will be the first points of destination,” he said. “This is contingent to what happens in terms of the numbers of the epidemic whether we keep it under control. But, if we are satisfied with the numbers then what we would like to do is target Aug. 1 as the date of the opening of the skies.”

Israel generally weathered the pandemic well and began opening up last month. But it has seen a steady rise in cases since then, raising fears that restrictions may be reapplied. Overall, the country has recorded nearly 20,000 cases, of which more than 15,000 have recovered, and 300 deaths. Greece also fared better than many of its fellow European countries.

Israel and Greece have strong economic ties and have grown even closer in recent years following the discovery of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. They are also aligned politically over their shared concerns about Turkey’s regional ambitions.

“I set out what I consider our view to be regarding Turkey’s aggressive behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean. We consider this activity to be a threat to regional peace and stability,” Mitsotakis said. noting a Turkish military exercise last week near Libya.

Russia, Turkey postpone talks on Syria, Libya conflicts

Russia, Turkey postpone talks on Syria, Libya conflicts

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This photo provided by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Syrian White Helmet civil defense worker walking amid the rubble of houses hit by airstrikes, in … more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Russia and Turkey have postponed a series of talks that were expected to focus on their opposing roles in conflicts in Libya and Syria.

Libya — which has been locked in a civil war since 2014 — has gone without a stable government since a 2011 rebellion ousted and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Syria, meanwhile, is in its 10th year of a conflict that has forced over half of its population to flee their homes, while over 11 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.

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The Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement Sunday that the Russian and Turkish ministers “will continue contacts and talks in the period ahead. Minister-level talks will be held at a later date.”

The U.N. in recent years recognized a Libyan government in Tripoli born out of U.N.-mediated talks in 2015. Qatar and Italy have supported Tripoli, although Turkey has emerged as its biggest backer. On the other side, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, France and Egypt are seen to back rebel commander Khalifa Haftar.

Turkey and Russia, who back opposing sides in the ongoing Syrian civil war, agreed to a cease-fire in Idlib on March 5, but airstrikes in the region have resumed in recent weeks.

UN chief shocked at Libya mass graves in recently freed town

UN chief shocked at Libya mass graves in recently freed town

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FILE – In this Jan. 17, 2020, file, photo, Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter joins a meeting with the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias in Athens. The U.S. military Tuesday, May 26, 2020 accused Russia of deploying fighter planes to conflict-stricken … more >

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By EDITH M. LEDERER and SUZAN FRASER

Associated Press

Friday, June 12, 2020

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed deep shock late Friday at the discovery of mass graves in Libyan territory recently recaptured from forces commanded by Khalifa Hifter, and called for a transparent investigation.

The U.N. chief also called on Libya’s U.N.-supported government to secure the mass graves, identify the victims, establish the causes of death and return the bodies to next of kin. He offered U.N. support in carrying it out, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

“The secretary-general once again reminds all parties to the conflict in Libya of their obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” Dujarric said.

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The United Nations said earlier Friday that at least eight mass graves have been discovered, mostly in the town of Tarhuna, a key western town that served as a main stronghold for Khalifa’s east-based forces in their 14-month campaign to capture the capital Tripoli.

The discoveries have raised fears about the extent of human rights violations in territories controlled by Hifter’s forces, given the difficulties of documentation in an active war zone.

Philippe Nassif, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa, said the group was working to verify the mass killings.

“We want to be able to go in, or have the U.N. go in, and collect evidence of potential war crimes and other atrocities … so eventually a process takes place where justice can be served,” he said.

Last week, militias allied with the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli recaptured Tarhuna, some 65 kilometers (41 miles) southeast of the Libyan capital, their latest in a string of battlefield successes that reversed most of Hifter’s gains. Earlier, the government said it regained control of all of Tripoli’s entrance and exit points and Tripoli airport.

Fathi Bashagha, the interior minister in the U.N.-supported government, said earlier this week that authorities were documenting evidence of alleged war crimes in Tarhuna, noting that preliminary reports indicated dozens of victims found in the city’s mass graves had been buried alive.

Bashagha also said that special investigative teams uncovered a shipping container in Tarhuna full of charred bodies, presumably of detainees, and blamed powerful militias loyal to Hifter for “heinous crimes.” A feared Hifter-allied militia called al-Kaniyat, notorious for its targeting of dissenters, had controlled the town.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker told reporters on Thursday he was “troubled” by reports that Tripoli forces had discovered bodies of civilians, in addition to land mines and other explosive devices in territory retaken from Hifter’s forces.

Libya has been in turmoil since 2011 when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.

Forces under Hifter launched an offensive trying to take Tripoli in April 2019, and the crisis in the oil-rich country had steadily worsened as foreign backers increasingly intervened despite pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year.

Hifter’s offensive is supported by France, Russia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other key Arab countries. The government in Tripoli is backed by Turkey – which sent troops and mercenaries to protect the capital in January – as well as Italy and Qatar.

The U.N. political mission in Libya said it convened a meeting with a delegation from Hifter’s forces on June 3 and another meeting Tuesday with a delegation from the U.N.-supported government. Guterres hopes that a cease-fire will be agreed soon, Dujarric said.

Schenker said he sees the escalating proxy war between Russia and Turkey in Libya as a challenge to regional stability, as well as a “tragedy for the Libyan people looking for peace and end to foreign intervention.”

Libya is teetering on the brink of a new escalation as Tripoli militias wage a campaign to recapture the coastal town of Sirte, which would provide access to the country’s vast oil fields under Hifter’s control. The intensified fighting has forced nearly 24,000 people to flee their homes in the last week, according to U.N. humanitarian officials.

Despite intensified diplomatic activity to bring the sides to the negotiating table, Turkey appears keen to shore up its presence in western Libya. On Friday, Turkey’s navy and air force conducted exercises in the Mediterranean Sea near Libya, officials said, an apparent show of backing for Tripoli.

The Turkish military said the drill was meant to test and develop Turkey’s ability to command and execute long-distance operations. A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations, said the maneuvers took place in international waters and airspace off Libya’s coast.

The military said 17 warplanes, based in the central Turkish air base of Eskisehir, and eight frigates took part in Thursday’s “Open Sea Training.” The drill lasted for eight hours and took place along a 1,000 kilometer (625 mile) -route from the Turkish coast and back.

Turkey’s escalating support, including armed drones and thousands of Syrian mercenaries, signals its desire to gain more leverage in the eastern Mediterranean. Ankara signed a maritime deal last fall with the Tripoli-based government that would grant it access to an economic zone across the Mediterranean, despite the objections from regional rivals Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. Turkey has said it will begin exploring for natural resources there within months.

___

Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Isabel DeBre in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Turkey says US is ‘safe harbor’ for group blamed for coup

Turkey says US is ‘safe harbor’ for group blamed for coup

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Friday, June 12, 2020

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) – Turkey on Friday accused the United States of becoming a “safe harbor” for members of a network that it blames for a coup attempt in 2016, after Washington criticized the conviction of a U.S. Consulate employee on terror charges.

Metin Topuz, a translator and assistant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Istanbul, was sentenced to eight years and nine months in prison on Thursday, convicted of aiding the network led by U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. The Turkish government blames Gulen for the 2016 coup attempt and considers his network to be a terrorist organization.

Topuz’s arrest in 2017 and subsequent prosecution caused tensions between NATO allies Ankara and Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement Thursday criticizing the conviction.

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Pompeo said: “U.S. officials observed every hearing in the trial of Mr. Topuz in Istanbul, and we have seen no credible evidence to support this decision. As a result, this conviction undermines confidence in Turkey’s institutions and the critical trust at the foundation of Turkish-American relations.”

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy hit back, claiming that other people with links to Gulen had “infiltrated” U.S. missions in Turkey and accusing U.S. authorities of ignoring requests for the extradition of Gulen-affiliated individuals.

“We are concerned that the United States has become a safe harbor for members of (Gulen’s) terrorist organization,” Aksoy said in a written statement.

Aksoy also called on the United States to respect the “judicial independence” of Turkey’s courts and to refrain from attempts “to influence the judiciary.”

Topuz has maintained his innocence throughout his trial and is expected to appeal the verdict.

Gulen, who has been in self-imposed exile in the U.S. since 1999, denies involvement in the coup attempt

Turkey turns to U.S. to ‘play more active role’ in achieving Libya cease-fire

Turkey turns to U.S. to ‘play more active role’ in achieving Libya cease-fire

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In this Jan. 17, 2020, file photo, Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hafter joins a meeting with the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias in Athens. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis, File) ** FILE ** more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Turkey on Thursday issued new calls to the U.S. to step in to conduct cease-fire and political negotiations in Libya.

Libya — which has been locked in a civil war since 2014 — has gone without a stable government since a 2011 rebellion ousted and killed long-time Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The United Nations in recent years recognized a Libyan government in Tripoli born out of U.N.-mediated talks in 2015. Qatar and Italy have supported Tripoli, although Turkey has emerged as its biggest backer. On the other side, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, France and Egypt are seen to back rebel commander Khalifa Haftar.

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Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a television interview that U.S. involvement in the dispute is vital to protecting interests of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) of which the U.S. and Turkey are both member nations.

“For some reason, the United States has not been that active in Libya, perhaps because of past traumas,” he said, as quoted by Reuters. “The United States needs to play a more active role, both for achieving a cease-fire and in the political process.”

His comments came just one day after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo encouraged the restarting of U.N. peacekeeping talks between both sides in Libya and called for a cease-fire to be reached quickly.

The Trump administration has been notably slow to respond to the ongoing conflict, although administration officials have offered rhetorical support over the past year to both sides.

While Washington has preferred to stay out of the dispute, President Trump on Monday reportedly discussed the possibilities of becoming involved in the matter with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Greece, Italy sign deal on demarcating maritime boundaries

Greece, Italy sign deal on demarcating maritime boundaries

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Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, right, and his Italian counterpart Luigi Di Maio asign an agreement following their meeting , in Athens, on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. Greece will lift all restrictions on Italian tourists entering the country gradually between … more >

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Associated Press

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

ATHENS, Greece (AP) – Greece and Italy signed an agreement Tuesday demarcating their maritime boundaries, amid tension in the Mediterranean region over rights to natural resources.

The agreement signed at the foreign ministry during a visit to Athens by Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, tackled an issue that had been pending for 40 years, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a statement.

“Today is a good day for Greece, Italy, Europe and the entire Mediterranean,” Mitsotakis said, adding that the deal meets international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

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It demarcates the exclusive economic zone – the maritime area in which a nation has the right of energy exploration and use of marine resources – between the two neighbors, as well as settling fishing rights, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said after signing the deal with Di Maio. “Today is a historic day,” he said.

Greece and Cyprus in particular have been locked in a tense diplomatic standoff with Turkey over drilling rights at sea. The issue is complicated by the lack of clear agreements delineating countries’ exclusive economic zones.

Last November, Turkey signed a maritime boundary agreement with Libya’s UN-backed government that was strongly opposed and considered illegal by Greece, Egypt and Cyprus.

“The demarcation of maritime zones is achieved in accordance with international law, with valid agreements,” Dendias said. “Not with unsubstantiated agreements such as the agreement between Turkey and (Libyan Prime Minister Fayez) Sarraj.”

Dendias said he spoke with Di Maio about “the escalation of Turkish violations against our country,” noting in particular a demand by a Turkish oil company “to drill on the Greek continental shelf.”

NATO allies Greece and Turkey have long-standing disputes, including over territorial rights in the Aegean Sea.

Greece calls Turkey’s oil-and-gas plan a ‘provocation’

Greece calls Turkey’s oil-and-gas plan a ‘provocation’

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Monday, June 1, 2020

ATHENS, Greece (AP) – Greece said Monday that it is determined to oppose plans by Turkey to expand oil-and-gas exploration in the Mediterranean Sea, in a deepening regional dispute over mineral rights.

Greece stands ready to deal with this provocation should Turkey decide to implement this decision,” Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said in a statement.

Government officials said the Turkish ambassador in Athens had been summoned to the Foreign Ministry Monday to receive a formal complaint from the Greek government.

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Turkish authorities over the weekend published an outline of the exploration licensing procedure for state-run Turkish Petroleum in areas that Greece says would violate its sovereign rights.

The planned expansion follows a maritime boundary agreement signed last year between Turkey and Libya that is strongly opposed and considered illegal by Greece and regional allies Cyprus and Egypt.

NATO allies Greece and Turkey have longstanding disputes over airspace and maritime boundaries in the Aegean Sea as well as over mineral rights in the eastern Mediterranean.

Erdogan, Trump reiterate solidarity against COVID-19

Erdogan, Trump reiterate solidarity against COVID-19

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In this photo provided by the Turkish Presidency, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, front center, arrives to attend the inauguration ceremony for Basaksehir Pine and Sakura City Hospital, in Istanbul, Thursday, May 21, 2020. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who … more >

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Associated Press

Saturday, May 23, 2020

ISTANBUL (AP) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump spoke Saturday on the phone to discuss the coronavirus pandemic, bilateral relations and regional developments.

According to an account of the phone call released by Erdogan’s office, the two leaders reiterated their solidarity in the fight against COVID-19.

They also discussed developments in Libya and Syria, agreeing to continue “close political and military cooperation” for regional stability, the statement said.

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For its part, the White House said that the two leaders “discussed progress on reopening and boosting global economies in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.”

President Trump also “reiterated concern over worsening foreign interference in Libya and the need for rapid de-escalation” and the presidents “reaffirmed the urgent need for a political resolution to the conflict in Syria, as well as unimpeded humanitarian access throughout the country,” a White House statement said.

Turkey has seen a downward trajectory in infections and the death rate, but hundreds of people are still confirmed positive every day.

The country has registered 155,686 infections and 4,308 deaths.

Turkey’s transport minister said Saturday that some intercity trains will resume limited operations May 28 as the country readies to restart domestic tourism. Passengers will be required to obtain a travel certification code from a government phone application. Travelers above 65 and under 20 will also need to get an additional travel permit as a full curfew imposed on those age groups continues, except for a few hours each week.

Turkey is in the midst of its first ever nationwide lockdown, lasting four days during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr. Previous partial lockdowns on weekends and holidays had affected a maximum of 31 of 81 provinces. Erdogan said this week he hopes this round of lockdowns will be the final one.

Separately, Turkey’s minister of youth and sports announced all quarantine measures for Turkish citizens coming from abroad had been completed. Since March, over 77,400 people were placed in mandatory quarantines in dormitories to curb the infection’s spread.

Turkey’s pandemic strategy hinges on hazmat-suited gumshoes

Turkey’s pandemic strategy hinges on hazmat-suited gumshoes

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In this Friday, May 15, 2020, photo, Dr. Melek Nur Aslan, left, the local health director for Fatih, a large district in the historic peninsula of Istanbul, briefs a team of contact tracers with Turkey’s Health Ministry’s coronavirus contact tracing … more >

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By Zeynep Bilginsoy and Mehmet Guzel

Associated Press

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

ISTANBUL (AP) — They see themselves as public health detectives, working 24/7 to track the coronavirus’ insidious spread through a country of 83 million, blending door-to-door hoof work with mobile apps, CCTV footage and, if needed, police backup.

Instead of global coronavirus testing, Turkey has based its pandemic response on partial lockdowns and work by armies of contact tracers, who identify people possibly infected by a COVID-19 patient and seek to stamp out the fire before it consumes a neighborhood, town or region.

Officials from both the Turkish government and the local World Health Organization say the tactic has paid off.

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Health Minister Fahrettin Koca says it’s brought the pandemic “under control,” with virus deaths and confirmed infections falling. The health ministry has recorded 151,615 confirmed cases — which places Turkey in the global top 10 for infections according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University — and 4,199 deaths.

“We brought the sickness’ spread under control by monitoring the source,” Koca said.

A tracer’s job is to find out who an infected person has come in close and unprotected contact with for more than 15 minutes. Once identified, these people are instructed to self-quarantine and are tracked by a mobile phone application. If they develop coronavirus symptoms, they are tested.

Turkey takes quarantines seriously — breaches can be punished by fines up to $162 and a maximum 1-year prison term.

When Istanbul resident Betul Sahbaz, 47, started showing symptoms after her flatmate tested positive for COVID-19, she called a health care line.

“I was scared, and panicked,” she told The Associated Press. “Sure we hear about it, but it’s different when you experience it.”

Enter two tracers, in white protective gear, masks and face shields, who came to her home. They took a nose swab and sent it to a lab for testing, which takes 24 to 48 hours.

“We are taking samples from patients in the comfort of their own homes and … preventing them from going outside and spreading the infection,” said Dr. Melek Nur Aslan, the local health director for the Fatih municipality in Istanbul, Turkey’s most populous city and the epicenter of its pandemic.

Fatih, which includes historic Constantinople, draws migrants from both Turkey and other parts of the world as well as tourists.

“Thanks to our detective work, we have prevented our cases from having contact with others” and helped lessen the strains on hospital emergency rooms and intensive care units, she said.

At least 6,239 tracers have reached 722,000 people who had contact with an infected person since March 10, Koca said. Some 1,200 of them work in Istanbul, a city of 15.5 million people that lies at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

All the tracers are members of the country’s medical community, including doctors, nurses and dentists, and many have received additional training on proper sample collection. Aslan said Turkey already had contact tracing experience before the pandemic and a small number of units to deal with potential measles outbreaks.

Public health expert Kayihan Pala from Bursa Uludag University’s Medical School commended the hard work and selflessness of Turkey’s contact tracers, but criticized the health ministry for putting together the teams haphazardly and without what he called adequate training. He also pointed to structural changes in Turkey’s health care system that could have weakened the initial response to the pandemic.

“We could have responded earlier and stronger to fight the pandemic,” Pala said.

The interim chief for WHO’s Turkish office, Irshad Ali Shaikh, said the country’s downward trajectory in reported confirmed cases “shows whatever interventions (were made) seem to have worked in favor, absolutely.”

Shaikh said the global goal is to test on average five close contacts of confirmed cases, and the government said in April that its tracers were reaching on average 4.5 contacts of an infected person.

“So if they are 4.5 out of 5, they are really very good in terms of global benchmarks,” he said.

Turkey has opted for a partial lockdown to keep its economy running, having workers still go to their jobs as much as possible but ordering stay-at-home lockdowns for people under 20 and above 65. Senior citizens, an age group that is most vulnerable to the coronavirus, on Sunday got to go outdoors for only the second time amid the lockdown. Other adults have had to follow two- to four-day lockdowns imposed in 31 provinces.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced a nationwide lockdown for four days during the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, voicing hopes that this will be the last stay-at-home restrictions.

But the independent Turkish Medical Association says it’s too soon to say if the pandemic’s spread has been curbed in Turkey. The group has called for widespread coronavirus testing, including of people who have yet to show symptoms but were identified through contact tracing.

Some 1.67 million people have been tested for the disease so far in Turkey.
Aslan said while police sometimes accompany her teams on their home visits if they feel threatened, overall the Turkish public has been compliant, grateful and welcoming to their efforts to stamp out the global menace. She said the teams have been very careful in their operations.

“Of course, we are anxious like others, and the worry is about possibly infecting our families,” she added.

___

Associated Press reporter Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed.

Designer: Trump vision for U.S.-made F-35 doable

Designer: Trump vision for U.S.-made F-35 doable

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In this March 14, 2014, file photo, a U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II makes a flyby after an unveiling celebration takes place at Luke Air Force Base for the delivery of the first F-35A fighter jet, in Glendale, Ariz. … more >

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By Mike Glenn

The Washington Times

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

President Trump wants to base the production line of the F-35 Lightning II entirely in the United States and a retired Air Force general who played a key role in designing the multi-role combat aircraft said the idea isn’t as far-fetched as critics make it out to be.

The F-35 was the result of the Joint Strike Fighter program, which merged several combat aircraft systems of the 1980s and 1990s. From the beginning, several countries contributed funds to the design and were given the opportunity to bid on contracts.

But, in an interview last week with the Fox Business Network, Mr. Trump railed against what he called the “stupidity” of having foreign countries involved in the F-35 supply chain.

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“If we have a problem with the country, you can’t make the jet. We get parts from all over the place — it’s so crazy. We should make everything in the United States,” he told FBN’s Maria Bartiromo.

Mr. Trump has a point, in the opinion of retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank B. Campbell Jr., a former director for force structure, resources and assessment on the Joint Staff in the Pentagon. He was involved in the development of the cutting-edge fighter jet from the start.

During a Monday conference call organized by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), Lt. Gen. Campbell said he thought it was possible to “unwind” foreign participation in the F-35 production, provided contractual issues could be solved.

“A lot of that would be addressed case by case,” he said. The U.K., he noted, “was an early partner in the aircraft and spent a lot of their own money in the development phase.”

But it’s the role of Turkey, which signed up as an F-35 production partner but was kicked out of the program following its acceptance of the S-400 Russian-made air defense system, that looms as the key test case.

“A significant production facility was going to be in Turkey and that’s been unwound,” he said. “If we can unwind that one, we can unwind anything.”

The F-35 has three variants — a standard jet for the Air Force, a carrier-capable version for the Navy, and the F-35B, a short take-off and vertical land model for the U.S. Marine Corps.

Retired Gen. Mark Welsh, a former Air Force Chief of Staff, said the fighter’s stealthiness and ability to share vast quantities of networked information is why at least 4,000 F-35s will be built for the U.S. military during its expected 50-year run.

“It’s the quarterback of the battlefield. It’s a phenomenal machine,” Gen. Welsh said. “The F-35 was designed and built to stay ahead of the data technology improving curve.”

With Turkey no longer participating, the Pentagon has been scrambling to find other suppliers for the F-35 components they were manufacturing. Lt. Gen. Campbell said the network capability and stealth technology of the F-35 — its core attributes — will remain protected even with foreign subcontractors.

But Mr. Trump’s musings about an entirely American-made F-35 are still a long way off.

Even after Turkey’s ouster from the F-35 program, a “good deal” of the aircraft is still either assembled internationally or is built with parts manufactured overseas, Lt. Gen. Campbell said.

“I think that will continue,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic has spotlighted concerns about U.S. civilian and military dependence on foreign sources for key raw materials and technology in other fields as well.

The Pentagon this week proposed new legislation to ease the near-total dependence on China for so-called “rare earth” minerals critical to the manufacture of a wide range of high-tech products — including missiles and hypersonic weapons.

China accounts for more than 70% of rare earth production globally and is the largest source for imports to the U.S., which had been a major producer until it was priced out by Beijing in the late 1980s, according to Defense News, citing a Congressional Research Service report.

The Pentagon is asking Congress to consider legislation that would end the reliance on China and raise caps in the Defense Production Act so it could spend up to $1.75 billion on rare earth elements for munitions and missiles and $350 million for microelectronics, according to Defense News.

Pentagon sources say they hope the proposal will be included in the next annual defense policy bill now being drafted on Capitol Hill.

Turkey accuses five nations of forming ‘alliance of evil’

Turkey accuses five nations of forming ‘alliance of evil’

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, listens during a teleconference with his cabinet in Istanbul, Monday, May 11, 2020. Erdogan announced a new four-day curfew to stem infections, that includes the weekend and a public holiday on May 19. The country … more >

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By SUZAN FRASER

Associated Press

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) – Turkey on Tuesday accused Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, France and the United Arab Emirates of seeking to form an “alliance of evil” after these countries issued a joint declaration denouncing Ankara’s policies in the eastern Mediterranean and Libya.

In a strongly-worded statement, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said the five countries were pursuing “regional chaos and instability” in the eastern Mediterranean and sacrificing Libyans’ “hope for democracy for the reckless aggression of dictators.”

The foreign ministers of the five countries held a teleconference on Monday to discuss the situation in the eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey has been drilling for potential hydrocarbon deposits in an offshore area where Cyprus has exclusive economic rights, as well as the situation in Libya.

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Last year, Turkey signed a contested maritime border delineation deal as well as a military cooperation agreement with the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli.

Turkey says the deal grants its economic rights to a large swath of the east Mediterranean Sea and prevents any energy-related projects from moving forward without Ankara’s consent. Greece and Cyprus have protested the deal, saying it contravenes international law and infringes on their own rights in the area.

The five nations denounced what they said was Turkey’s sixth attempt in less than a year to “illegally conduct drilling operations in Cyprus’ maritime zones.”

Turkey doesn’t recognize ethnically divided Cyprus as a state and claims much of its exclusive economic zone as its own. It has dispatched warship-escorted vessels off Cyprus to drill for gas, insisting that it’s acting to protect its interests and those of Turkish Cypriots to the area’s natural resources.

Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after coup by supporters of union with Greece. A breakaway Turkish Cypriot state is recognized only by Turkey.

The five also protested the agreements signed with Libya’s U.N.-backed government as a violation of international law and the U.N. arms embargo in Libya.

”(The) Ministers strongly condemned Turkey’s military interference in Libya, and urged Turkey to fully respect the UN arms embargo, and to stop the influx of foreign fighters from Syria to Libya. These developments constitute a threat to the stability of Libya’s neighbors in Africa as well as in Europe,” the five nations declared.

In its response, the Turkish Foreign Ministry accused Greece and Cyprus of avoiding dialogue with Turkey and faulted Egypt for not protecting the rights and interests of its own people. It also charged the UAE of joining the others out of hostility against Turkey and blamed France for allegedly seeking to act as a “patron” to the alliance.

“We call on these countries to act in line with common sense, international laws and practices,” said Aksoy, the Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman. “Peace and stability in the region can be established with sincere and genuine dialogue, not through alliances of evil.”

__

Associated Press Writer Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus contributed.

Libya gov’t warns of escalation after attacks near embassies

Libya gov’t warns of escalation after attacks near embassies

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Friday, May 8, 2020

CAIRO (AP) – The head of Libya’s U.N.-supported government on Friday warned of an escalation in the battle for Tripoli after rockets struck near foreign embassies in the capital, drawing sharp condemnation from the European Union and United Nations.

The Tripoli-based health ministry said an attack late Thursday killed at least three civilians and wounded four others when rockets struck near the perimeter of the Italian ambassador’s residence in the crowded neighborhood of Zawiat al-Dahmani. Earlier on Thursday, five civilians were reported killed in shelling of two other city neighborhoods.

The U.N. again raised alarm that ordinary Libyans are bearing the brunt of an increasingly deadly siege by eastern-based forces under the command of Khalifa Hifter, calling the actions “despicable” and “a direct challenge” to peace efforts.

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In the attack on Zawiat al-Dahmani, two policemen guarding a Libyan government building died, along with a civilian who happened to be on the street, said the ministry’s spokesman, Amin al-Hashemi. Four more civilians suffered shrapnel wounds, he said, including a medic with the Libyan Red Crescent.

The European Union denounced the assault “in the strongest possible terms,” saying Friday that such indiscriminate strikes “run counter to the respect for human life and international humanitarian law.”

The U.N. Mission in Libya said it was documenting the violations to share with the International Criminal Court.

The U.S. Embassy echoed the concerns, urging the warring sides to focus their efforts on combating the coronavirus pandemic.

Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj’s office said he spoke with the ambassadors of Italy and Turkey on Friday to ensure they were unscathed by the attack.

Ahmed al-Mosmari, a spokesman for Hifter’s self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces, denied they had violated international law, saying the forces have always sought to shield diplomatic sites from the violence of their siege. He accused unspecified “terrorists” of trying to turn international public opinion against Hifter’s campaign.

Hifter’s foreign-backed forces launched a push last year to capture Tripoli from Sarraj’s government. The fighting has killed hundreds of civilians and displaced over 150,000, threatening to push Libya into a major conflagration on the scale of the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

As the Tripoli fighting rages, migration from Libya’s shores to Europe is also increasing. A dinghy that set out carrying 25 migrants earlier this week was intercepted late Thursday by the Libyan Coast Guard.

The guard brought the migrants to the port in Tripoli but everyone on board was forced to wait till the shelling of the city subsided. Eventually, the migrants disembarked and were taken to one of Libya’s detention facilities notorious for torture and abuse, the U.N. migration agency said Friday.

Commodore Masoud Abdal Samad, a Libyan Coast Guard commander, said that his forces provided medical aid to the desperate migrants while they waited. “Then we handed them over to the immigration police,” he said.

U.S. envoy James Jeffrey sees chance for talks to avert Idlib bloodbath

U.S. envoy sees chance for talks to avert Idlib bloodbath

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In this Thursday, March 12, 2020 photo, a girl stands inside Idlib’s old central prison, now transformed into a camp for people displaced by fighting, in Idli, Syria. Idlib city is the last urban area still under opposition control in … more >

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By Madison Hirneisen

The Washington Times

Thursday, April 30, 2020

After months of bloodshed and conflict, diplomats say the landmark cease-fire agreement in Syria forged between Turkey and Russia is “holding up to expectations” and could pave the way for negotiations in Syria’s war-torn Idlib province.

Idlib, the last major rebel-held region of Syria, has seen the brunt of the latest battles in the nearly decade-long Syrian war. With hundreds of thousands fleeing there in the face of a renewed offensive by the troops of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Turkey and Russia — who back opposing sides in the civil war — agreed to a cease-fire in Idlib on March 5.

Despite grim predictions of a looming bloodbath, the Trump administration’s point person on the Syrian crisis said Thursday he was still hopeful the door remains open to peace negotiations, if Syria’s Russian allies convince Mr. Assad to pull back.

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“We are absolutely convinced that we can find a political solution to this conflict, with one condition: the Idlib cease-fire has to hold,” Ambassador James Jeffrey, the State Department’s special representative for the Syrian war and the fight against Islamic State, said Thursday.

And even as COVID-19 now threatens Syria and the region, U.S. diplomats say the Trump administration is not easing sanctions and other pressure designed to force Mr. Assad to negotiate.

“We think that the cease-fire in Idlib is encouraging the small steps towards the constitutional committee, [and] the bad situation the Assad regime has found itself in economically in terms of its reputation leaves the door a bit more open for success in these discussions,” Mr. Jeffrey told a telebriefing Thursday organized by the Atlantic Council.

Ibrahim Kalin, the deputy chairman of the Turkish Security and Foreign Policy Council and an adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told the briefing that the cease-fire was only a temporary solution, and that Mr. Assad may still be tempted to press his military advantage.

A negotiated political solution also might lead to Mr. Assad losing his grip on power, Mr. Kalin noted.

“We are facing difficulties with the Syrian regime because the regime is not interested in advancing the work of the constitutional committee, because they are afraid of a revised or rephrased constitution that will be binding,” Mr. Ibrahim said.

While many nations have provided support to Syrian refugees over the years, Mr. Ibrahim said he hopes to see greater “cooperation and partnership” from the international community in pressing for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

“To end the human suffering in Idlib, or in any part of Syria, it requires serious political work, so we should not lose sight of this fact,” Mr. Ibrahim said.

With the recent appearance of the coronavirus pandemic in the region, officials are concerned that the virus could pose a dangerous threat to the more than 1 million Syrians who were displaced due to the crisis in Idlib. Before the arrival of the virus, Mr. Jeffrey said the humanitarian crisis was already “horrendous,” but the presence of COVID-19 “will make it even worse.”

But despite the increasingly long odds for rebel groups holed up in Idlib, Mr. Jeffrey said there was little sign displaced Syrians want to return to the parts of Syria firmly under Mr. Assad’s control.

“No matter how bad it gets, almost none of that population will return to Assad’s control unless forced to,” Mr. Jeffrey said. “The situation in his areas is so bad for that population that they will put up with essentially everything. The COVID situation will make it worse, but I don’t think it will have an overall impact on the diplomatic layout.”

The United Nations has approved a plan that will allow $180 million in U.S. aid to cross into northeastern Syria via Turkish border crossings. Mr. Ibrahim said health officials are working to determine the true extent of coronavirus cases in Syria since information from the Assad regime is likely “unreliable.”

Mr. Jeffrey also cautioned that the focus on Idlib could take away from the U.S.-led coalition fight against Islamic State, which still carries out sleeper cell operations along the Syrian-Iraqi border.

“We have seen ISIS gaining ground there, attacking even towns, and at least briefly holding territory,” Mr. Jeffrey said. “That has to stop. We’ve offered to cooperate with the Russians on this, but as long as the focus is on Idlib that is yet another consequence.”

UN warns that ‘tragedy beckons’ in Syria from virus

UN warns that ‘tragedy beckons’ in Syria from virus

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Thursday, April 30, 2020

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The U.N. humanitarian chief said Wednesday that more than 40 cases of COVID-19 and at least three deaths have been reported in Syria, signaling that “tragedy beckons” after nine years of war that has left the country’s health care system decimated.

Mark Lowcock told the U.N. Security Council that while the number may sound low compared to other countries, testing in Syria is very limited. The U.N. special envoy for Syria, meanwhile, called for a lasting cease-fire to fighting in the country.

With millions of people displaced in crowded conditions and without adequate sanitation, he said Syria can’t be expected “to cope with a crisis that is challenging even the wealthiest nations.”

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Efforts are being made to set up isolation areas in displacement camps and health facilities in Syria, but measures aimed at containing the virus are already having side effects such as skyrocketing food prices in some areas, he said.

Lowcock said essential medical supplies and equipment must be allowed into the country, and that the Al Yarubiyah border crossing from Iraq to Syria’s northeast must be reopened.

The border crossing was closed in January at Russia’s insistence, and Lowcock said deliveries of medical supplies to the northeast from Damascus have not filled the gap.

Syrian Kurds established an autonomous zone in the northeast in 2012 and were U.S. partners on the ground in fighting the Islamic State extremist group. A Turkish offensive in October against Syrian Kurdish militants led the U.S. to abandon its Kurdish allies, leading to strong criticism of both Washington and Ankara.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a cease-fire to all conflicts around the world on March 23 to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, and at separate Security Council meetings Wednesday on Syria’s political and humanitarian situation there was widespread support for his appeal.

Geir Pedersen, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, welcomed the fact that there has been “significant calm in many areas of Syria,” with no all-out offensives since early March.

He said Russian-Turkish arrangements have taken hold in the northwest, the last opposition stronghold, and cease-fire arrangements between Russia, Turkey and the United States in the northeast “also continue to broadly hold.”

He said the calm was “uneasy and fragile” and there is a constant risk of things escalating.

He appealed for a cease-fire “that results in sustained calm and is nationwide in scope – one that does not see new assaults across lines of contact, and enables Syrians to access equipment and resources necessary to combat COVID-19.”

But Russia and the U.S. disagreed about who should be in the lead in pursuing a cease-fire and an end to the Syrian conflict.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told the council that the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey – the guarantor states in the so-called “Astana process” aimed at ending the Syria conflict – held a video conference on April 22 and “underscored the leading role of Astana in promoting a Syrian settlement.”

He said this includes stabilizing the situation in the country, dealing with refugees, resolving humanitarian problems and promoting a dialogue among Syrians in the committee that is to draft a new constitution.

Nebenzia said the ministers of Russia and Iran, who support Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Turkey, which backs the opposition, would prepare for the next Astana summit.

The acting U.S. deputy ambassador, Cherith Norman Chalet, said the U.N. “must be at the center of any effort to establish a comprehensive, enduring, and verifiable nationwide cease-fire.”

France’s U.N. Ambassador Nicolas de Riviere also stressed that the U.N. must be “at the forefront” of cease-fire efforts.

He called for a broader political process than just the constitutional committee and told the council that “France is deeply concerned about the growing instability everywhere in Syria.”

Russia’s Nebenzia ticked off “terrorist” groups operating in Syria’s northwest and stressed that the “pandemic cannot be used as a pretext to whitewash terrorists.”

“Appeals to Damascus to step up its efforts to fight the pandemic are irrelevant as to 30% of territories which are under effective control either of foreign troops or of opposition or of terrorists,” Nebenzia said. “Those controlling these territories should be responsible for it.”

Bomb in Syria town run by Turkish-backed fighters kills 20

Bomb in Syria town run by Turkish-backed fighters kills 20

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Turkish soldiers atop an armored personnel carrier patrol the northwestern city of Afrin, Syria, during a Turkish government-organized media tour into northern Syria, Saturday, March 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis) ** FILE ** more >

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Associated Press

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A powerful bomb exploded Tuesday in a northern Syrian town controlled by Turkish-backed opposition fighters, killing at least 20 civilians, Turkey’s state-run news agency reported.

Anadolu Agency said the attack in a crowded street in Afrin was carried out using a fuel tanker. It said several others were wounded.

The agency quoted unnamed security officials as saying the attack was believed to have been carried out by Syrian Kurdish fighters linked to Kurdish militants fighting Turkey.

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The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said the blast occurred in a market killing 20 and wounding 27 others.

The Qasioun news agency, an activist collective, said the blast killed 42 and wounded more than 50.

Turkey and allied Syrian fighters took control of Afrin in 2018 in a military operation that expelled local Kurdish fighters and displaced thousands of Kurdish residents. Ankara considers the Kurdish fighters who were in control of Afrin to be terrorists. Since then, there have been a series of attacks on Turkish targets in the area.

Similar blasts in areas controlled by Turkey-backed opposition fighters have killed scores of people in recent months, attacks that Ankara blames on Kurdish fighters.

Turkey supports the Syrian opposition in the war against President Bashar Assad but has joined with Russia to secure and monitor local cease-fires.

Activist collectives in northern Syria urged people in the Afrin area to head to hospitals and donate blood.

The Observatory and other activists said the death toll could rise because some of the wounded were in critical condition.