• Merkel in Turkey to salvage battered alliance

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    ANKARA: German Chancellor Angela Merkel was visiting Turkey on Thursday to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the first time since July’s failed coup, seeking to keep a key partnership alive after a series of crises.

    Merkel will also meet Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and Turkish opposition figures during the sensitive one-day visit to Ankara, which has caused controversy at home and in Turkey.

    Merkel arrived in Ankara in the early afternoon and headed to talks with Erdogan at his palace, with both sides expected to make a statement afterwards.

    The relationship between the two NATO allies has been battered in the last months by a series of rows in the wake of the July 15 failed coup aimed at ousting Erdogan.

    Berlin has repeatedly expressed unease over the extent of the crackdown that has seen some 43,000 people arrested in the wake of the putsch, under a state of emergency that has now lasted over half a year.

    Erdogan, meanwhile, has vented his exasperation that Germany has not responded to requests for the extradition of hundreds of suspects linked to the coup, the Kurdish militant movement and the ultra-left.

    The number of asylum requests made to Germany from Turkish citizens has shot up from 1,700 in 2015 to 5,700 in 2016, likely due to the crackdown after the coup.

    Last week it was reported that 40 Turkish soldiers stationed at NATO bases had asked Berlin for asylum, with Turkey pressing for the bids to be rejected.

    While Germany has expressed alarm over an alleged deterioration of press freedom in Turkey, Ankara wants Berlin to hand over the former opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper’s editor-in-chief Can Dundar who escaped the country after the coup.

    Dundar has founded a new anti-Erdogan news portal in Germany—Ozguruz (We Are Free)—and been received as an honored guest by officials including President Joachim Gauck.

    Referendum looming

    The visit is all the more sensitive with Erdogan planning a referendum in April on new powers that critics say will create one-man rule. Merkel faces elections at home in September where policy on Turkey will be a key issue.

    Germany is home to some three million people of Turkish origin, the biggest population of Turks in the world outside Turkey.

    The controversy over Ankara’s post-coup crackdown has dealt a new blow to its long-running EU membership bid, although Berlin has stopped short of backing Austrian calls for the entire process to be halted.

    Merkel will also want to press Turkey to keep implementing a deal that has so far successfully reduced migrant flows to Europe, despite threats by Erdogan to walk away from it due to a failure to fulfill a pledge to grant Turks visa-free travel.

    Reports have also said Ankara is irritated that German surveillance planes operating from its Incirlik air base close to Syria are not handing over intelligence relating to Kurdish militia.

    Merkel’s visit will be her first to Turkey since the coup, after German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier held prickly talks in Ankara in November.

    With the hugely controversial constitutional referendum looming in April, the visit has not been universally welcomed in Turkey, with opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu saying he was disappointed in Merkel.

    “She could say that Turkey must improve its democratic standards and a separation of powers is the backbone of the highest democratic standards,” he told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

    Merkel was due to meet Kilicdaroglu and figures from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) whose co-leaders are under arrest.

    Opposition figures in Germany have also suggested Merkel should not be meeting Erdogan as he is presiding over the crackdown.

    But Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere defended the trip in comments to the Passauer Neue Presse: “The chancellor does not need advice. She knows what she has to do,” he said, adding the state of democracy in Turkey “gives reason for concern.” AFP

    AFP/CC

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