ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey sent its first ship carrying food aid to Qatar and dispatched a small contingent of soldiers and armored vehicles there on Thursday, while President Tayyip Erdogan spoke with Saudi Arabia’s leaders on calming tension in the region.
Turkey has backed Qatar after Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab states cut all economic and diplomatic ties this month, accusing Doha of supporting terrorism, a charge it denies.
But Ankara, which has long tried to play the role of regional mediator, is also wary of upsetting its other allies, including Saudi Arabia. Turkey fast-tracked legislation on June 7 to allow more troops to be deployed to a military base in Qatar that houses Turkish soldiers under an agreement signed in 2014.
Five armored vehicles and 23 military personnel arrived in Doha on Thursday as part of the new deployment plans, Turkey’s armed forces said in a statement, adding that the move was in the framework of legal measures regarding military training and cooperation between the two countries.
Some 88 Turkish soldiers were already in Qatar, according to the Hurriyet newspaper.
After the deployment, a joint exercise by Turkish and Qatari forces was expected following the Islamic Eid al-Fitr holiday, Hurriyet said. The number of Turkish soldiers sent to the Gulf state could eventually reach 1,000, it said, adding that an air force contingent was also envisaged.
The first Turkish ship carrying some 4,000 tonnes of dry food supplies, fruit and vegetables set off from a port in western Turkey’s Izmir province at dawn on Thursday, state-run Anadolu news agency said. It cited the head of the logistics company delivering the supplies as saying it was expected to arrive in Doha in around 10 days.
Though Turkey has sent 105 cargo planes of supplies, Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci said on Wednesday that it was not sustainable to maintain aid supplies through an air lift.
In supporting Qatar, Turkey was not trying to threaten anyone, Erdogan’s spokesman said.
“We don’t want any sort of tension with any Gulf state. We would also not want any of them to be in a row with each other. This has been our approach to this crisis since the beginning,” Ibrahim Kalin told reporters on Thursday.
“In other words, if two of your friends, two neighbors are disagreeing with each other and if there is something you can do about this, it is perfectly natural to go into action.”
Sources from Erdogan’s office said the president spoke by phone overnight with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and new crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, congratulating the latter on his promotion.
“Agreement was reached on increasing efforts toward ending tension in the region related to Qatar,” the sources said in a statement regarding the phone calls on Thursday. Erdogan and King Salman agreed to hold face-to-face talks at the G20 meeting in Hamburg next month, the sources said.
King Salman made his son next in line to the throne on Wednesday, handing the 31-year-old sweeping powers as the kingdom seeks a radical overhaul of its oil-dependent economy and faces mounting tensions with regional rival Iran.
Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by David Dolan and Richard Balmforth