Turkey's ruling party has put forward a one-year target for drafting a new constitution while pressing ahead on dialogue with the opposition, boosting the conciliatory climate ahead of Parliament's opening over the weekend.

Following talks Thursday between the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, delegation and counterparts from the main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, both sides said they agreed on the formation of a conciliation commission in Parliament to handle the constitution-making process as the priority of the new legislative year.

"We conveyed our thought that work [in the commission] should be concluded within one year," AKP deputy chairman Ömer Çelik said after the meeting.

Speaking ahead of his departure for Macedonia, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also spoke in favor of "speedy" proceedings "so that we can finish the job within the first half of 2012."

The CHP, however, raised objections to a pre-determined timetable for the commission and renewed its call for the release of jailed lawmakers.

"We have no disagreement with the AKP on the formation of a conciliation commission, [but] it is up to the commission to determine its working principles," CHP Deputy Group Chairman Akif Hamzaçebi said.

Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin, who was present at the meeting, said they were working on a formula to resolve the much-criticized problem of lengthy detention periods, without making a direct reference to the jailed deputies, sources said.

CHP deputy Rıza Türmen countered that a proper implementation of existing legislation would be enough to end the problem, the sources added.

The Hürriyet Daily News has also learned that the CHP indicated it was against changing the first four articles of the current Constitution and suggested that provisions amended during last year's constitutional referendum should be taken up anew, a proposal to which the AKP gave a moderate response.

The CHP named the two deputies it would send to the commission – Süheyl Batum, a professor of constitutional law, and Türmen, a former judge at the European Court of Human Rights.

Speaking to reporters, the AKP's Çelik urged all parties to keep the constitution-making process as an "independent" priority and not let political bickering on other issues harm the effort.

He stressed the AKP was "extremely happy" with the current dialogue, referring also to a meeting with the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, on Wednesday.

Parliament to Open in Conciliatory Spirit

The meetings, coupled with a decision by Kurdish lawmakers to end their parliamentary boycott, have helped ease political tensions this week, creating a conciliatory spirit for Parliament's opening session Saturday.

Following an opening speech by Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek, lawmakers from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, are expected to take their oaths.

President Abdullah Gül is then expected to address the assembly and deliver strong messages on the anti-terror struggle, foreign policy and the new constitution, putting the emphasis on political dialogue. Gül has been reportedly preparing the speech for two months.

Last year, Gül highlighted the issue of long detention periods, and the opposition is now eager to hear what he will say about the controversy over lawmakers who remain in prison, the reason behind the BDP boycott and a similar protest action by the CHP in July.

İsa Gök, the only CHP member who has maintained the boycott, is expected to attend the session but is not planning to take his oath. All four top commanders of the army are expected to attend the session, unlike previous years when their predecessors shunned the event over the BDP's presence there.

Parliament Speaker Çiçek is also expected to send letters to all four parties in the legislature to formally invite them to the conciliation commission.


Two Soldiers Killed in Clashes in Southeast Turkey

Two soldiers were killed in an ambush by the alleged members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, in the southeastern province of Şırnak late Thursday.

PKK militants remotely detonated a landmine during the passage of a military convoy on a road near Beytüşşebap district of the southeastern province of Şırnak at around 10:00 p.m.

The militants then opened fire on the convoy with longrange rifles, prompting a firefight between soldiers and PKK members.

Five soldiers were wounded in the initial attack. Two of the wounded soldiers were later pronounced dead. An operation was launched in the area to apprehend the assailants.

The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.


Israeli Warplanes Harassed Turkish Seismic Ship Off East Mediterranean

A Turkish seismic research ship exploring for gas near Cyprus was harassed by two low-flying Israeli warplanes and a helicopter Thursday night, the Turkish Vatan Daily reported Friday.

According to a report by the Greek Cypriot daily Phileleftheros, Israel boosted its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean Thursday night with two F-15 jets that took off from Tel Aviv flew through Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot airspaces.

Reportedly ignoring warnings from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, or KKTC, officials, the Israeli jets got so close to Turkey's Mediterranean coasts that they could be seen from Mersin's beaches, the report said. In response, Turkey reportedly sent two F-16 jets to the area to track the Israeli jets, which then returned to Israel.

An Israeli military helicopter also flew over the Turkish research ship, Piri Reis, on Thursday night, according to the daily, as it was in the Aphrodite gas field, off Cyprus' southern coast and adjacent to the larger Leviathan field.

Greek Cyprus has signed agreements to delineate undersea borders in the eastern Mediterranean with Israel, Lebanon and Egypt. Noble Energy, a United States company licensed by the Greek Cypriot government to drill for gas in the south of Cyprus, operates with its Israeli partner, Delek.

In December 2010, Noble Energy announced that a gas reserve of 16 trillion cubic feet had been discovered off the coast of Israel, estimated to be worth more than $95 billion. Noble Energy owns nearly 40 percent of the prospective discovery in the Israeli section, alongside Israeli partners Delek Group Ltd. units Avner Oil and Gas LP and Delek Drilling LP, with 22.67 percent each.

Turkey signed an oil and gas exploration deal with the Turkish Cypriots and sent a Turkish research ship to the Mediterranean to start exploration. Turkey opposes exploration of gas in the eastern Mediterranean, saying it has rights in the region as the biggest coastal state; the Turkish Cypriots, who run a state that is not internationally recognized in the north of the island, should also be involved, Turkey also maintains.

Cyprus is divided into a Greek Cypriot south and a Turkish Cypriot north. The southern administration began exploratory drilling for oil and gas last week, prompting strong protests from Turkey, which does not recognize the Greek Cypriot administration.


Macedonia Will Enter EU Before Turkey, Turkish Prime Minister Says

Macedonia will enter the European Union before Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Thursday, congratulating Skopje in advance during his visit to the Balkan country.

"On the EU process, I believe Macedonia will enter the EU before Turkey. The process continues at a fast pace. We are a country conducting entry negotiations with the EU. However, Macedonia will enter the EU before Turkey. I hope EU membership will be beneficial for Macedonia," Erdoğan said at a joint press conference with his Macedonian counterpart, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, following their meeting in Skopje.

Macedonia officially became a candidate for EU membership in 2005, but Athens blocked it from joining either the European bloc or NATO, saying the name "Macedonia" implies a claim on the northern Greek region of the same name. Almost two decades of UN-led negotiations over the name dispute has not resolved anything.

"It is a natural and constitutional right for Macedonia to use that name. We support Macedonia in this process," Erdoğan said. "We do not understand Greece's stance and approach to the matter. We do not think Greece's attitude is right. Greece's name is clear. Macedonia's decision to use its name should be respected.

"On NATO, Greece blocks Macedonian membership. We have extended and will continue to extend support to Macedonia for NATO membership. No one should have reservations on this matter," Erdoğan added.

Speaking at the same press conference, Gruevski said the government cares about the Turkish community living in Macedonia, which is an indivisible part of the country. The two sides have the will to boost relations in all possible fields, the Macedonia prime minister added.

"Trade volume between Turkey and Macedonia is around $300 million and this does not reflect the actual potential. We will make every effort to increase this trade volume," Gruevski said, thanking Erdoğan for Turkey's support to Macedonia in all fields. "Turkey's friendship carries high importance for us," he said.

Erdoğan also said he would urge the chairs of civil-society organizations in Turkey toward investments in Macedonia. "There are presently around 100 Turkish entrepreneurs operating in Macedonia. We want this number to go up. As politicians, it is our task to lift obstacles to trade. I do hope more Turkish entrepreneurs will make investments in Macedonia," the Turkish prime minister said.

During his visit, Erdoğan was scheduled to meet with Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov and attend a working lunch to be hosted in his honor by Ivanov. Erdoğan was also expected to meet Macedonian Parliament Speaker Trajko Veljanoski, and to attend a dinner hosted by Gruevski.

Erdoğan is expected to attend a graduation ceremony at International Balkan University and visit several cities in Macedonia during his trip, which coincides with the 20th anniversary of Macedonia's independence.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ and Education Minister Ömer Dinçer are accompanying Erdoğan on his visit.


Banks Respond to U.S. Armenian's Lawsuit

Two Turkish banks have issued their defense in a United States lawsuit filed by three Armenian-Americans claiming damages for the alleged appropriation of their properties by Turkey during the events of 1915, in the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

The Turkish Central Bank, and state-owned Ziraat Bank, issued their pleas on Sept. 19, while the Turkish Foreign Ministry, which was also sued, refused to state its defense in the suit.

"Restitution of the property is the plaintiffs' rightful remedy in international law for the unlawful expropriation of property," Vartkes Yeghiyan, the plaintiffs' lawyer, told the Hürriyet Daily News via e-mail.

The banks have claimed in their pleas that the Turkish Republic founded in 1923 cannot be held responsible for incidents that took place during the Ottoman period. The prosecution, on the other hand, is asking for $64 million in compensation.

"In lieu of restitution, plaintiffs are entitled to recovery of the current fair market replacement value of the properties, plus the accrued reasonable rental value," Yeghiyan said. "This case is also important the international community."

Rita Mahtesyan, Anais Harutyunyan and Alex Bakalyan filed the suit to reclaim property they alleged had been expropriated by Turkey during the events of 1915, and whose income they say was transferred to the two banks in question. The property they wish to claim also includes the Incirlik Air Base used by the U.S. in the eastern Mediterranean province of Adana.

"The government of the Republic of Turkey is benefiting from the exploitation of the properties," Yeghiyan said.


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