Blinken to speak about aid and Nordic NATO candidacy during visit to earthquake-hit Turkey

MUNICH, Feb 19 (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will arrive in Turkey on Sunday for an official visit and will discuss how Washington can further help Ankara as it grapples with the aftermath of a devastating land that killed tens of thousands of people.

A 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck southeastern Turkey and neighboring Syria on February 6, killing more than 45,000 people and leaving more than a million people homeless, with an economic cost expected to run into billions of dollars.

Blocked NATO applications from Sweden and Finland, which Turkey has so far refused to ratify, saying Stockholm in particular has harbored what it calls members of terrorist groups, will also be on the table. agenda. Ankara recently indicated that it would only approve Finland.

The top US diplomat will land at Incirlik Air Base in the southern province of Adana, from where he will take a helicopter tour of the quake-hit area. He will then have bilateral talks on Monday with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu.

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Blinken is also expected to meet Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, sources close to the planning said.

Since the earthquake, the United States has sent a search and rescue team to Turkey, medical supplies, concrete breaking machines and additional funding of $85 million in humanitarian assistance which also covers Syria. .

Blinken’s first visit to Turkey as secretary of state has been in the works for some time, but comes two years after he took office, in stark contrast to some of his predecessors, including Hillary Clinton and Rex Tillerson, who have made the visit during the first three months. of their terms.

Analysts say the delay shows the strained nature of the relationship, which has deteriorated particularly since 2019, when Ankara acquired Russian missile defense systems. While the United States praised Turkey for some of its actions during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it remains concerned about its close relationship with Moscow, experts say.

NATO DEADLOCK

Sweden and Finland asked last year to join the transatlantic defense pact after Russia invaded Ukraine, but faced unexpected objections from Turkey and have since sought to win its support .

Ankara wants Helsinki and Stockholm in particular to take a tougher line against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), considered a terrorist group by Turkey and the European Union, and another group it accuses of having attempted a coup in 2016.

In January, Erdogan said he was willing to ratify only Helsinki’s bid.

Tied to the membership offers is Turkey’s desire to buy US-made F-16 fighter jets, a sale that the US Congress has opposed unless at least Ankara gives its green light for the accession process of the Nordic countries.

On Saturday, Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen echoed that sentiment and said allowing Finland to join the alliance on its own would not be enough.

‚ÄúThere will be no transfer of F-16s if Erdogan continues to deny admission to Finland and Sweden… He doesn’t get Finland and the F-16s are approved and I think it’s It’s a general feeling,” Van Hollen said. in an interview.

The Biden administration has repeatedly said it supports the sale and while it has refrained from linking the two issues, it has acknowledged that Nordic endorsement would have a positive impact among members of Congress.

Turkey has expressed frustration that the issues are seen as increasingly linked. Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s chief foreign policy adviser, said last month he hoped the F-16 deal would not become “hostage” to Sweden’s NATO memberships and from Finland.

Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Daniel Wallis

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