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Turkey hits back at Pence, says US must choose between NATO ally and ‘terrorists’

A State Department staffer adjusts a Turkish flag before a meeting between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at the US Department of State in Washington, DC on April 3, 2019. (Photo by AFP)

Turkey has hit back at the US over an ultimatum for Ankara to stop buying Russian S-400 missile defense systems or risk its NATO membership, saying it is Washington that “must choose” between remaining an ally of Turkey or siding with “terrorists.”

Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay was responding to comments by his US counterpart, Mike Pence, at an event in Washington marking the 70th anniversary of the NATO military alliance on Wednesday.

During the forum, Pence delivered a strong warning to NATO ally Turkey against the purchase of S-400 air defense systems from Moscow.

Turkey “must choose” between remaining a key NATO member or risk the security of that partnership “by making such reckless decisions,” Pence said.

Oktay fired back at Pence in a tweet shortly afterwards and said, “The United States must choose. Does it want to remain Turkey’s ally or risk our friendship by joining forces with terrorists to undermine its NATO ally’s defense against its enemies?”

The Turkish official was apparently referring to Washington’s support for the Kurdish militants operating in Syria near the Turkish border, which Ankara views as “terrorists” affiliated with the homegrown Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighting for autonomy inside Turkey.

Turkey has, since 2016, launched two military operations inside Syria against the US-backed Kurdish militants and has threatened a third if they fail to leave the east of the Euphrates.

On Monday, the Pentagon halted the delivery of equipment related to the American F-35 stealth fighter jet to Turkey due to the latter’s decision to purchase S-400s.

Turkey has signed a $2.5 billion deal with Russia for the purchase of S-400 batteries with the delivery set to begin in July. It has, at the same time, ordered 30 of the F-35 fighters and plans to buy over 100 in total.

Ankara’s military deal with Moscow has angered Washington, with Pence saying at the NATO meeting that the US “will not stand idly by while NATO allies purchase weapons from our adversaries.”

“Turkey’s purchase of a $2.5 billion S-400 anti-aircraft missile system from Russia poses great danger to NATO and to the strength of this alliance,” Pence said.

However, speaking at the same event, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara’s plan to get Russian S-400s was “a done deal,” and “we will not step back from this.”

Ankara has long argued that Turkey, as a sovereign state, is entitled to choose its trade partners and arms supplier free from foreign intervention.

Cavusoglu, Pompeo hold talks

On the sidelines of the NATO meeting, Cavusoglu met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington for talks on the main sticking points in Washington-Ankara relations.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) meets with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at the US Department of State in Washington on April 3, 2019. (Photo by AFP)

In a Twitter post after the meeting, Cavusoglu said he had “constructive" talks with Pompeo “on challenges in our bilateral relations and issues on #Turkey-#US common agenda.”

The State Department said in a statement that the top US diplomat had warned of “devastating” results if Turkey strikes Syria.

“Secretary Pompeo expressed support for ongoing negotiations regarding northeast Syria, while warning of the potentially devastating consequences of unilateral Turkish military action in the region,” read the statement.

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