Turkey's Erdogan calls Iraqi Kurdish referendum illegitimate

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday called the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum illegitimate and said Russia and Turkey agreed that the territorial integrity of Iraq and neighboring Syria must be preserved.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during a conference in Istanbul, Turkey, September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Erdogan spoke after face-to-face talks in Ankara with President Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader gave no opinion of the vote, saying Moscow’s position had been set out by the foreign ministry which said it respected the Kurds’ “national striving” but supported the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Iraq.

Both Turkey and Russia have strong commercial ties with the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of north Iraq but Turkey - with a large Kurdish population of its own - bitterly criticized Monday’s referendum, threatening economic sanctions and a military response.

“The Kurdish referendum has no legitimacy in terms of the Iraqi constitution and international laws,” Erdogan said in his comments at the presidential palace.

“No one has the right to throw our region in the fire. In this delicate period after the referendum, we have to prevent the Kurdish Regional Government from making bigger mistakes.”

Turkey has been battling an insurgency in its mainly Kurdish southeast for more than three decades and fears the vote in northern Iraq could fuel separatism within its own borders.

Both Erdogan and Putin said they would continue to work together to address the conflict in Syria, where they have supported opposing sides in the struggle between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and rebels who fought to overthrow him.

“The de facto conditions for ending the fratricidal war in Syria, the final destruction of terrorists and Syrians’ return to a normal life have been created,” said Putin, whose support for Assad helped turn the tide of the six-year conflict in favor of the president.

Putin said he and Erdogan confirmed their commitment to four “de-escalation zones” across Syria, including the northwestern province of Idlib, home to about 2 million people and largely controlled by former Nusra Front militants.

Erdogan said last week that Turkish troops will deploy inside Idlib, which is on Turkey’s southern border, while Russia would maintain security outside the province.

Warplanes conducted a tenth consecutive day of air strikes on the Idlib area on Thursday, targeting insurgent-held towns, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Opposition rescue workers said on Wednesday that Russian and Syrian jets had killed at least 150 civilians in the air raids. Russia says it is only attacking jihadists. Russian media, citing the defense ministry, said 37 Nusra members including five field commanders were killed in a rocket attack in Idlib.

The presidents said they wanted to see progress in two major projects, the TurkStream gas pipeline from Russia to Turkey and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant being built in Turkey with Russian collaboration.

“We place great importance on the realization of these projects swiftly,” Erdogan said. “We have observed during out talks that there are some disruptions, we will fix them quickly.”

Reporting by Tulay Karadeniz and Darya Korsunskaya; Writing by Ece Toksabay and Dominic Evans; Editing by Tom Brown