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Russia ‘has proof’ Turkey's Erdogan benefits from IS group oil

AFP / Jim Watson | Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks on at the US Chief of Mission’s Residence during a bilateral meeting December 1, 2015

Russia has proof that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his family are benefiting from the illegal smuggling of oil from territory held by the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq, the country’s defence ministry said Wednesday.

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The claim was the latest volley fired in a war of words between Moscow and Ankara that erupted last week when a Turkish air force jet shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian-Turkish border, the most serious incident between Russia and a NATO state in half a century.

At a briefing in Moscow, defence ministry officials displayed satellite images which they said showed columns of tanker trucks loading oil at installations controlled by the IS group in Syria and Iraq, and then crossing the border into neighbouring Turkey.

The officials did not specify what direct evidence they had of the involvement of Erdogan and his family, an allegation that the Turkish president has vehemently denied.

“Turkey is the main consumer of the oil stolen from its rightful owners, Syria and Iraq. According to information we’ve received, the senior political leadership of the country – President Erdogan and his family – are involved in this criminal business,” said Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov.

“Maybe I’m being too blunt, but one can only entrust control over this thieving business to one’s closest associates.”

Antonov pointed the finger at the recent appointment of Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak as energy minister and alleged that the president’s son runs one of the country’s main energy companies.

“In the West, no one has asked questions about the fact that the Turkish president’s son heads one of the biggest energy companies, or that his son-in-law has been appointed energy minister. What a marvellous family business!”

“The cynicism of the Turkish leadership knows no limits. Look what they’re doing. They went into someone else’s country, they are robbing it without compunction,” Antonov said.

Erdogan: ‘I’ll step down if claims are proven’

Erdogan responded by saying no one had the right to “slander” Turkey by accusing it of buying oil from the IS group and vowed to stand down as president if such allegations were proven to be true.

“I won't stay in the seat of president for even one minute if Russia proved its claims. But those who spread this slander shouldn't retain their seats either,” Erdogan said in comments broadcast by Turkish television on a visit to Qatar.

"Turkey has not lost its moral values so as to buy oil from a terrorist organisation," he added.

On Tuesday, US President Barack Obama said Turkey had made progress in sealing its border with Syria, but the IS group was still exploiting gaps to bring in foreign fighters and sell oil.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had already alleged Turkey benefits from the oil trade with the IS group as Moscow ramped-up anti-Turkey rhetoric in the wake of the downing of the Russian plane, part of Russia's military task force carrying out strikes in Syria.

"We have every reason to think that the decision to shoot down our plane was dictated by the desire to protect the oil supply lines to Turkish territory," Putin said Monday.

However, such a scenario is unlikely, according to David Butter, an expert on energy and the political economy of the Middle East at the UK’s Chatham House think tank.

“Turkey relies almost entirely on imports for its total oil consumption of about 720,000 barrels per day,” he wrote in a piece originally published by the BBC.

“In 2014 Russia also supplied 27 billion cubic metres of natural gas to Turkey, representing 56 per cent of its total consumption.

“In this context, if oil was a consideration for the Turkish authorities in its decision to shoot down a Russian jet, it would have had good reason to hold fire.”

First face-to-face talks

Putin has also ordered economic sanctions against Turkey in retaliation for the shooting down of the jet, while Erdogan has rejected Putin’s demands to apologise over the incident, saying that Turkey was acting well within its rights to protect its border.

Ankara claims the plane was in its airspace and ignored repeated warnings but Moscow insists it never crossed the border from Syria.

Nevertheless, there was some sign of rapprochement Wednesday as Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said he had agreed to meet his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu at a conference in Belgrade later this week in the first high-level face-to-face talks since the downing.

“We will not be evading this contact,” Lavrov said during a visit to Cyprus.

“We will hear what Mr Cavusoglu has to say. Perhaps there will be something new after what has already been said publicly.”

Putin snubbed a meeting with Erdogan at the UN climate conference in France on Monday, after Lavrov had earlier scrapped a visit to Istanbul in the immediate aftermath of the plane downing.

Turkey and Russia are close economic partners, with Moscow the main supplier of oil and gas to the energy-poor country.

But they are rival players in the war in Syria, with Ankara part of a US-led coalition against the IS group that is opposed to President Bashar al-Assad while Moscow has launched a bombing campaign at the request of the Damascus regime.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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