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Turkey raising naval presence amid tension with Israel

Sep 6, 2011, 3:59 a.m.
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan Erdogan visits the Seyidka camp in Somalia's capital Mogadishu August 19, 2011. REUTERS/Omar Faruk

ANKARA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday Turkey was freezing defense industry trade with Israel and stepping up Turkish naval patrols in the Eastern Mediterranean, deepening Ankara's feud with the Jewish state.

"The Eastern Mediterranean is not a strange place to us. Aksaz and Iskenderun, these places have the power and opportunity to provide escorts," Erdogan told reporters referring to two Turkish naval bases. "Of course our ships will be seen much more frequently in those waters."

On Friday, Turkey announced it was expelling Israel's ambassador and other senior diplomats, downgrading relations after the release of a U.N. report on the killing of nine Turks during an Israeli commando raid on an aid flotilla bound for the Israeli-blockaded Palestinian enclave of Gaza last year.

Israel's refusal to apologize for the deaths has angered Turkey, a NATO member with the alliance's second biggest military, and Erdogan's government argues that Israel's blockade of Gaza lacks legitimacy.

Erdogan also said Turkey was preparing more sanctions against Israel, and specifically said defense industry ties would be frozen.

"Trade ties, military ties, regarding defense industry ties, we are completely suspending them. This process will be followed by different measures," Erdogan told reporters in Ankara.

The extent of trade sanctions were unclear from Erdogan's words. Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan had said on Monday said Turkey would do nothing "for now" to change its economic relationship with Israel.

Asked about Erdogan's remarks, an Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "Israel does not want to see further deterioration in its relationship with Turkey."

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in remarks broadcast before Erdogan's announcement on Tuesday, said: "Israel and Turkey are the two strongest and in many respects the most important countries in the Mideast.

"We have our differences, but in differences too it is important that both sides act using their heads and not their gut -- that will be best for us all and best for regional stability and restoring things."

Erdogan also said he may visit Gaza, which is ruled by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, during a planned visit to Egypt, but would decide after consulting the Egyptian government. Erdogan is planning to visit Cairo later this month.

He will also attend the U.N. General Assembly in New York later this month where he is likely to speak strongly in support of Palestinian efforts to win U.N. recognition for a state they aim to create in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

(Reporting by Pinar Aydinli and Ece Toksabay in Ankara, Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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