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Russia hosts pro-Kurdish Turkish politician who condemns Ankara

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish opposition party met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Wednesday and criticised Ankara for shooting down a Russian warplane last month.

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Russia, which imposed economic sanctions on Turkey after the Nov. 24 incident, and has sharply criticised President Tayyip Erdogan and would be keenly aware of the sensitivity of Ankara to any contacts between Moscow and Kurdish politicians.

The visit by Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), is likely to further damage ties between Moscow and Ankara. Erdogan has accused the HDP of connections with armed Kurdish rebels fighting in Turkey’s south-east.

“We criticised the actions of the government when the Russian plane was shot down,” Russian news agencies quoted Demirtas as telling Lavrov.

“From the very first days, we declared as an opposition party in the country, that we do not support the position of worsening relations with Russia,” said Demirtas, who heads the second-biggest opposition party in Turkey’s parliament.

His trip and the warm welcome he was given in Moscow are likely to unsettle Ankara following comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said last week he saw no prospect of mending ties with Turkey’s leadership.

Stratfor, a private U.S. global intelligence think tank, said that by receiving Demirtas “Moscow has found a pressure point in the form of the Kurds”.

“Demirtas wants to show Erdogan that the Kurds are a political force that cannot be sidestepped in elections or crushed in the streets,” it said in analysis published on Wednesday.

“This meeting, the highest-level diplomatic encounter between Russia and Turkey since relations soured last month, comes after the Kremlin refused point blank to reconcile with Ankara.”

Lavrov told Demirtas that Russia was ready to cooperate closely with ethnic Kurds fighting against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

“We know that there are Iraqi and Syrian Kurds among those who on the ground resist the threat from Islamic State and other extremist groups with weapons in their hands,” he said.

Western backing for Kurdish fighters in Syria and Iraq is a sensitive issue for Ankara which is fighting, by air strikes, Turkish Kurdish militants based in the mountains of northern Iraq. Turkey fears the emergence of a contiguous Kurdish state embracing Syrian, Iraqi, Turkish and possibly Iranian territory.

Media reports quoted Demirtas before the visit as saying he wanted to open a representative office for his party in Moscow.

But Interfax news agency quoted a Russian diplomatic source as saying that under the law HDP cannot open an office in Russia, although it could still be represented by a private person or a non-government organisation.

Additional reporting by Polina Devitt; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Ralph Boulton