Australia says tensions with Turkey ease after WWI remarks

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks in front of a model dinosaur during the inauguration of a theme park in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, March 20, 2019. Erdogan has sparked a diplomatic spat with New Zealand and Australia as he campaigns for votes in local elections this month and portrays the mosque shooting in New Zealand and a World War I battle as targeting Islam.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

SYDNEY — Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday tensions between his country and Turkey had eased after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's office said comments by the Turkish leader that sparked the row had been taken out of context.

A diplomatic dispute flared over Erdogan's comments in the wake of Friday's gun massacre in which 50 people were killed at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, attacks for which an Australian white supremacist has been charged with murder.

Speaking while campaigning for local elections, Erdogan warned Australians and New Zealanders going to Turkey with anti-Muslim views would return home in coffins, like their ancestors who fought at Gallipoli in World War I.

Morrison slammed the comments as "highly offensive," and on Wednesday summoned Turkish Ambassador to Australia, Korhan Karakoc, to explain the remarks. Australia also placed under review its travel advisory for its citizens visiting Turkey, which was already set at "exercise a high degree of caution" due to the threat of terrorism.

But on Thursday, Morrison said progress had been made on mending bilateral ties after a spokesman for Erdogan said the president's words were "taken out of context." Fahrettin Altun, director of communications for the Turkish presidency, said Erdogan was in fact responding to the manifesto posted online by the man arrested in the mosque attacks.

Altun also said Erdogan had made his remarks in a historical context relating to attacks past and present against Turkey, a move partly inspired, he said, by the fact the president was speaking near commemorative sites near the Gallipoli battlefields.

"President Erdogan's words were unfortunately taken out of context," Altun said on Twitter.

"He was responding to the so-called 'manifesto' of the terrorist who killed 50 innocent Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand. Turks have always been the most welcoming & gracious hosts to their Anzac (Australia and New Zealand) visitors.

"The terrorist's manifesto not only targeted Erdogan himself but also the Turkish people and the Turkish state.

"As he was giving the speech at the Canakkale (Gallipoli) commemoration, he framed his remarks in a historical context of attacks against Turkey, past and present."

Morrison on Thursday welcomed what he called a "moderation" of Erdogan's views, which followed a series of high-level bilateral diplomatic communications on the matter.

"Overnight, progress has been made on this issue and overnight we've already seen a moderation of the president's views," Morrison told reporters in Melbourne.

"It's my intention to break any cycle of recklessness, to work through these issues practically, to register in the strongest and clearest of terms the offence that was taken — I believe rightly — by those comments yesterday, but now to work constructively," Morrison told reporters in Melbourne.

"Australia and Turkey, the peoples of both countries, have a tremendous relationship, built up over generations."

Thursday's developments came as New Zealand Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters was en route to Turkey to meet with Erdogan and seek clarification over his comments.

The 1915 Gallipoli campaign, marked by heavy casualties on both sides, was a disastrous defeat for the allies against the then Ottoman Empire. Although the battle later helped cement friendship among the three countries, it remains a highly sensitive subject in Australia and New Zealand.

Erdogan has also sparked outrage abroad by showing video excerpts at his campaign rallies of the footage broadcast by the Christchurch gunman, to denounce what he has called rising hatred and prejudice against Islam. Three Turkish citizens were among the dozens wounded in the attack.

It is not the first time Erdogan has sparked outrage abroad by making controversial statements about foreign countries, particularly during pre-election periods to stir up nationalist sentiment and consolidate his support base. He has sought to patch up relations after the elections.

Local elections are set to be held in Turkey on March 31. With the economy struggling, Erdogan's party risks losing the capital, Ankara, to the opposition. Such an outcome would be a severe blow to the president, whose ruling Justice and Development Party and its predecessor have run the city for the past quarter century.

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