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Russia accuses Erdogan of links to IS oil trade – Turkish leader rejects ‘slander’

DOHA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani shake hands during a ceremony yesterday. - AP
DOHA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani shake hands during a ceremony yesterday. – AP

MOSCOW: Russia yesterday accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his family of involvement in illegal oil trading with Islamic State jihadists, ratcheting up the heat in a dispute over Ankara’s downing of one of Moscow’s warplanes. The Turkish strongman accused Moscow of “slander” over claims his country had bought oil from IS, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed to meet his counterpart from Ankara for the first high-level face-to-face talks since the ferocious war of words erupted last week.

Ties between NATO member Turkey and Russia have been strained since Ankara shot down the jet on its border with Syria on Nov 24, with President Vladimir Putin accusing Ankara of downing the jet to protect oil supply lines to Turkish territory. But the defense ministry accusations against Erdogan are the first implicating the Turkish strongman directly. “The main consumer of this oil stolen from its legitimate owners Syria and Iraq is Turkey,” deputy defense minister Anatoly Antonov told journalists.

“According to available information, the highest level of the political leadership of the country, President Erdogan and his family, are involved in this criminal business.” Erdogan angrily dismissed Russian claims that Ankara is trading in oil with jihadist groups, insisting he would resign if allegations were proved true. “No one has a right to engage in slander against Turkey by saying that Turkey is buying oil from Daesh (IS),” he said on a visit to Ankara’s closest ally Qatar, where he signed a memorandum of understanding on gas supplies.

The Russian briefing broadcast satellite images of oil trucks on a huge screen but did not provide any specific data on how Erdogan is tied to the activities. Antonov pointed the finger at the recent appointment of Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak as energy minister and alleged that the president’s son runs one of the country’s main energy companies. “What a fantastic family business,” he said, claiming that “terrorists” in Syria make some $2 billion each year out of the illegal oil trade.

Still Lavrov agreed to meet his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Belgrade later this week for the first time since the downing. “We will not be evading this contact,” Lavrov said during a visit to Cyprus. “We will hear what Mr Cavusoglu has to say. Perhaps there will be something new after what has already been said publicly.”

Putin snubbed a meeting with Erdogan at the UN climate conference in France on Monday, after Lavrov had earlier scrapped a visit to Istanbul just after the plane downing. Erdogan has rejected Putin’s demands to apologize over the incident, saying that Turkey was acting well within its rights to protect its border. Moscow has announced an embargo on some Turkish food imports, halted the sale of package holidays there and reintroduced visas for Turkey visited in a bid to punish Ankara.

Erdogan said Turkey was pushing for a diplomatic resolution for the crisis to stop further damage to its ties with Moscow but warned that it could retaliate against further retaliatory measures. “We are saddened by the disproportional responses by Russia to an incident in which the whole world agrees we are right,” he said. “If these responses continue we will take our own measures,” he said, without elaborating.

While Turkey and Russia continued to wrangle, the body of a pilot killed when the jet was blown out of the sky was buried in his hometown some 360 km south of Moscow. Local media reported that thousands of mourners flocked to bid farewell to Oleg Peshkov, who the defence ministry said was shot dead from the ground after parachuting out of the jet. The corpse of the pilot – who has been awarded Russia’s highest honor – was flown back from Turkey after it was taken across the border from Syria.

The Russian defence ministry earlier alleged that the same criminal networks which were smuggling oil into Turkey were also supplying weapons, equipment and training to IS and other Islamist groups. “According to our reliable intelligence data, Turkey has been carrying out such operations for a long period and on a regular basis. And most importantly, it does not plan to stop them,” Sergei Rudskoy, deputy head of the Russian military’s General Staff, told reporters.

The defense ministry said its surveillance revealed that hundreds of tanker trucks were gathering in plain sight at Islamic State-controlled sites in Iraq and Syria to load up with oil, and it questioned why the US-led coalition was not launching more air strikes on them. “It’s hard not to notice them,” Rudskoy said of the lines of trucks shown on satellite images. Officials said that the Russian air force’s bombing campaign had made a significant dent in IS’ ability to produce, refine and sell oil.

Ministry officials described three main routes by which they said oil and oil products were smuggled from Islamic State territory into Turkey. It said the Western route took oil produced at fields near the Syrian city of Raqqa to the settlement of Azaz on the border with Turkey. From there the columns of tanker trucks pass through the Turkish town of Reyhanli, the ministry said, citing what it said were satellite pictures of hundreds of such trucks moving through the border crossing without obstruction. “There is no inspection of the vehicles carried out … on the Turkish side,” said Rudskoy.

Some of the smuggled cargoes go to the Turkish domestic market, while some is exported via the Turkish Mediterranean ports of Iskenderun and Dortyol, the ministry said. Another main route for smuggled oil, according to the ministry, runs from Deir Ez-zour in Syria to the Syrian border crossing at Al-Qamishli. It said the trucks then took the crude for refining at the Turkish city of Batman. A third route took oil from eastern Syria and western Iraq into the south-eastern corner of Turkey, the ministry said. It said its satellite surveillance had captured hundreds of trucks crossing the border in that area back in the summer, and that since then there had been no reduction in the flow. – – Agencies

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