Appeals for Turkey and Israel to make up in flotilla row

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Top diplomats piled pressure on Turkey and Israel to make up Saturday after Ankara's decision to expel the Jewish state's ambassador in retaliation for last year's deadly Gaza flotilla raid.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, senior European foreign ministers and officials in Washington all urged the one-time allies to end their increasingly poisonous dispute that they worried could impact on the wider Middle East.

"I sincerely hope that Israel and Turkey will improve their relationship," Ban told reporters in the Australian capital Canberra.

"Both countries are very important countries in the region and their improving relationship, normal relationship, will be very important in addressing all the situations in the Middle East, including the Middle East peace process."

The UN leader said he had been trying to help the countries improve their relationship since May 31, 2010 when Israeli troops boarded a Gaza aid flotilla, leading to the deaths of nine people including eight Turks.

Turkey pulled its ambassador out of Tel Aviv in the immediate aftermath of the raid but on Friday Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced that diplomatic ties would be further downgraded after a UN probe slammed the "excessive" force used in the raid, for which Israel has failed to apologise.

As well as announcing the Israeli ambassador Gaby Levy was being expelled, Davutoglu also said all bilateral military agreements were being suspended.

Davutoglu spent Saturday with his European Union counterparts who sent a clear message they wanted an end to the spat.

"Our wishes are like those of the UN secretary general who said that this dispute between Israel and Turkey must be resolved through dialogue and mutual understanding, not via other means," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters at an informal meeting in the Polish Baltic Sea port of Sopot.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle meanwhile said that Berlin was "very worried by the recent dispute", urging immediate dialogue by "all parties" to seek a solution.

There were also similar calls to mend fences from Washington.

The United States "has longstanding friendships with both Israel and Turkey", said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, urging the two sides "to look for opportunities to improve their longstanding relationship".

Davutoglu himself refused all comment at the talks in Poland.

The Turkish measures came after a UN-mandated report criticised Israeli troops for using "excessive" and "unreasonable" force when boarding the ferry Mavi Marmara on May 31, 2010.

It added, however, that the flotilla "acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade" and the Israeli forces "faced significant, organised and violent resistance from a group of passengers".

The report's release was delayed several times because of the failure of Turkey and Israel to agree a final version. It was finally handed to Ban on Friday.

Turkey has repeatedly said relations will not return to normal unless Israel apologises and compensates the victims, which it refuses to do.

"Israel once again expresses its regret for the loss of human life but does not apologise for this operation," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said in a statement on Friday.

"Israel, like every other country, has the legitimate right to defend itself."

The report has also upset the Palestinians as it endorsed the legality of Israel's naval blockade of Gaza, which the Jewish state says is necessary to prevent the ruling Islamist movement Hamas from obtaining weapons.

"This report is terrible and negative," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP Saturday.

"It's a political report that is not based on international law, but on the contrary, it violates international law, because the Gaza Strip is still under Israeli occupation."

Turkey had been Israel's closest ally in the Muslim world, holding regular joint military exercises, but ties have plummetted since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted party came to power in 2002.

They went into crisis when eight Turkish nationals and an American of Turkish descent died on the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship of the six-vessel convoy, after Israeli special forces in speed boats and dropped from helicopters boarded it in international waters.

© 2011 AFP

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