ANKARA/BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday Germany would only restrict some arms sales to Turkey, softening an earlier announcement of a freeze on major arms sales after Ankara said that would hurt their joint fight against Islamic State.
Merkel spoke a day after Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Berlin had put all major arms exports to NATO partner Turkey on hold, citing deteriorating human rights there and strained diplomatic ties.
She told broadcaster NDR that Germany would decide on arms sales requests from Turkey on a case-by-case basis, noting that Berlin cooperated with Ankara on security matters.
“We also remain in a joint fight against Islamic State,” Merkel said, in an apparent rebuff of the more forceful remarks made by Gabriel, a senior member of the Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in her ruling coalition.
Turkey accused Gabriel of using the issue for political gain ahead of a Sept. 24 national election.
The countries’ ties through the U.S.-led military alliance have come under increased pressure since Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan started a crackdown on political opponents after a failed coup last year.
Germany has criticized mass arrests in Turkey, refused to extradite people Turkey says were involved in the putsch and demanded the release of around a dozen German or Turkish-German citizens arrested in recent months.
This month, Merkel went as far as saying she would seek to end Turkey’s membership talks with the European Union - drawing accusations from Turkey that she was flirting with populism to build support before the election.
Berlin is also considering adding Turkey to a list of countries that pose high security risks for intelligence agents, police officers and military officials, Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper and two broadcasters reported, citing a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.
The list includes China, Russia, Pakistan, North Korea and 26 other countries.
Merkel did not give details of what criteria Germany would use to make its case-by-case decisions on arms exports.
But in a written response to a question from Greens lawmaker Ozcan Mutlu about German arms exports to Turkey, Economy Ministry state secretary Matthias Machnig said they would not be approved if Berlin suspected they could be used for repression.
Machnig’s response, dated Sept. 7, also showed arms sales to Turkey had declined significantly since a year earlier.
He listed arms exports to Turkey approved between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 this year - primarily bombs, torpedoes and missiles with some small arms and munitions - worth a total of about 25 million euros ($29.84 million), down from 69 million euros in the same period last year.
After Merkel spoke, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he found the chancellor’s approach more “suitable” and chided Gabriel for using the issue to drum up votes.
Gabriel’s SPD is running 13 to 14 percent behind Merkel’s conservatives in many opinion polls.
Turkish EU Affairs Minister Omer Celik, speaking in London, had said Gabriel’s ban on major arms deals would weaken Turkey’s fight against terrorism and make Europe less secure.
A NATO spokesman said the alliance has no role in commercial arms sales between member states.
“It does not monitor, promote or facilitate such transactions,” the spokesman added.
Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber and Andrea Shalal in Berlin, Robin Emmott in Brussels, Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Writing by Paul Carrel and Daren Butler; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg