An ambitious initiative to rewrite Turkey's constitution took off in earnest Monday as Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek asked the four parties in Parliament to assign three representatives each for a commission to start work "as soon as possible" on drafting the reforms.

"I don't want to protract things. I'd like the commission to get down to work as soon as possible," Çiçek told reporters, stressing he was ready to convene the panel as soon as the members were named.

In a letter to the parties, Çiçek requested they assign their representatives by Oct. 10, and described the would-be panel as a "preparatory commission" to be set up "with the aim of meeting public expectation and preparing the new constitution with maximum inclusiveness."

Çiçek emphasized that the panel was a preparatory commission and not a conciliation commission, as it had been widely referred to so far, because its duty would be to prepare the new charter. The name, however, sparked suspicion among some opposition lawmakers.

Muharrem İnce from the main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, spoke of "slyness" and suggested the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, might attempt to water down the commission process. Asked whether the commission would have a predetermined timetable, Çiçek stressed that it would be up to the body itself to decide how much time it would need.

"Let's not rush things, but let's not protract them either. Any statement about a timetable at the moment should be considered as wishful thinking," he said.

Last week, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the process should be completed within the first half of 2012, fanning opposition concerns that the AKP might attempt to hijack the process. Çiçek said he had decided to increase the number of seats for each party from two to three because "making a new constitution is not like repairing a building but erecting a brand new one." He raised the possibility that the process might require an additional commission to which some of the original members could move.

Asked whether Turkey could draw on the constitution-making experience of other countries such as South Africa, Çiçek said: "Ours is the best model."

Earlier Monday, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin cautioned parties against premature bickering that could forestall the current spirit of cooperation in response to a question on whether the AKP envisaged a one-year deadline to make the new constitution.

"I advise everybody to refrain from daily exchanges and statements that my harm the process," Ergin said.

In a related development, parliamentary officials have eased restrictions on the broadcasts of Meclis TV (Parliament TV) following opposition criticism. The channel will now air live the weekly speeches of party leaders at their parliamentary group meetings on Tuesdays. Live broadcasts from the General Assembly remain limited to four hours.

PKK Releases Four Teachers in Southeast Turkey

Four teachers who were kidnapped by suspected members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, were released Monday night.

The teachers were kidnapped from villages in the southeastern province of Diyarbakır on Sept. 26 and 27.

Remzi Savaş, Ahmet Ürün, Tekin Çakır and Talip Maçin called their families around 10 p.m. on Monday to tell them they were released by their captors. Reports did not mention where they were released.

The teachers came to Diyarbakır Courthouse on Tuesday morning to give their testimonies on the kidnappings. Lawyers from Human Rights Foundation were with the teachers. The PKK still holds eight more teachers it kidnapped in September.

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

Turkey to Continue Cyprus Gas Drill

Turkey's exploration vessel, the Piri Reis, will continue its seismic research efforts off southern Cyprus, a Turkish official said Monday, adding that it has partially completed its work on Block 12 – the zone where Greek Cyprus has begun drilling for oil and natural gas.

"Piri Reis will refuel in Famagusta Port on Monday and will sail again afterward," a senior diplomat told reporters, saying that the vessel would continue its research off the southern coast of the island, despite earlier reports that suggested it would return to İzmir Port late Monday. The East Mediterranean has been placed at the center of regional politics recently after a rift between Turkey and Israel; Greek Cyprus' decision to commence oil drilling, despite Turkey's strong rejection, also contributed to the strife.

Turkey and Turkish Cyprus have signed a continental shelf agreement to delimit water boundaries for joint oil and gas explorations. Some of the zones overlap with that of Greek Cyprus.

After completing two-dimensional research, the official said, the vessel will begin three-dimensional surveying that will be followed by building a platform off Cyprus.

"Drilling for oil and natural gas is among our plans. But, naturally, this process will take time," the official added.

When asked whether Turkey would sign agreements to delimit exclusive economic zones with other

littoral countries, such as Lebanon and Egypt, the official said, "Turkey will wait for the completion of reunification talks in the Cyprus Island and for the settlement in the Arab-Israeli conflict."

Meanwhile, Turkey's energy minister has denied media reports that a Turkish vessel conducting seismic research around the island of Cyprus had completed studies and was soon set to return home, the Anatolia news agency reported.

"The Piri Reis research vessel is continuing its studies in another portion of the sea. And it will surely return to Turkey after completing its task," Minister Taner Yıldız told reporters Monday.

Turkey deployed the seismic research ship after penning a deal with Turkish Cyprus to demark the underwater continental shelf borders between the two entities, allowing Turkey to search for oil and gas inside Turkish Cypriot waters. The agreement followed a Greek Cypriot move to start offshore drilling for natural gas and oil to the southeast of the eastern Mediterranean island.

Cyprus President Dimitris Christofias said Saturday that exploratory drilling for offshore oil and gas deposits will continue despite Turkey's strong opposition, The Associated Press reported. Christofias said the divided island's right to search for potential mineral deposits inside its exclusive economic zone is non-negotiable and that any foreign meddling is unacceptable.

Turkish Executives Deny Turkey Has Continental Shelf Demand in South Cyprus

Commenting on oil and natural gas exploration initiatives of the Greek Cypriot administration, Turkish officials said Turkey did not have any continental shelf demand in the south of Cyprus.

"The Piri Reis seismic ship is carrying out activities to protect the rights of Turkish Cypriots," they said.

The Piri Reis seismic ship is reportedly exploring oil and natural gas around Cyprus on behalf of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, or TRNC, after its Council of Ministers granted a license to the Turkish Petroleum Corporation, or TPAO, to explore oil and natural gas; the licenses were not only limited with the north of the island, but included a permit for seismic studies in the south of the island, the Turkish executives said.

The group of officials also said the seismic studies in the Mediterranean were a direct response by Turkey and the TRNC to Greek Cypriots' drilling initiatives.

"This agreement between Turkey and TRNC does not mean that the Turkish Cypriots have given up their rights on the entire island, but it means that they also protect their rights in the south," they said. "It is also an agreement supporting a settlement in the island, not a separation of path between the two sides in the island."

The same executives said Greek Cypriots should make well use of Turkish Cypriots' proposal to halt oil exploration until a comprehensive settlement was found. The executives said in case Greek Cypriots violated Turkey's rights on the continental shelf and restricted economic zone, Turkey's attitude would be different.

"Turkey and the TRNC will take the necessary steps to protect the TRNC's rights in case natural gas and oil extraction begins," they said.

On Sept. 21, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and TRNC President Dervis Eroglu signed an agreement on the delineation of the continental shelf between the two countries in the East Mediterranean; the deal gives Turkey the green light to search oil and gas inside the Turkish Cypriot waters. The agreement follows a Greek Cypriot move to start offshore drilling for natural gas and oil in the southeast of the Eastern Mediterranean island.

TRNC Council of Ministers on Sept. 22 gave exploration license to TPAO, the Turkish Petroleum Corporation, to explore oil and natural gas in the sea around Cyprus island. TRNC President Eroglu met UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York on September 24 and proposed to suspend oil and natural gas exploration until a comprehensive solution was found to the Cyprus question. Or, if the Greek Cypriot administration insisted on oil exploration, recommended a committee be set up by the two sides in the island to decide how to share the richness that could be found after the explorations.

Greek Cyprus has not given a positive response. In 2010, the Greek Cypriot administration and Israel signed an accord demarcating their maritime borders to facilitate a search for mineral deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Greek Cypriot side had signed a deal with the U.S.-based Noble Energy to start drilling in an 324,000-hectare economic zone adjacent to the Israeli waters.

PM Calls for Probe into Foundation Ties

Turkey's prime minister continued his accusations on Monday regarding the opposition parties' alleged links to various German foundations.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized activities by a German foundation, without naming it, claiming it was signing business agreements with municipalities run by the main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, and Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP even though it claimed to be a foundation.

Erdoğan said the media did not reflect his words truthfully about the German foundation's financial assistance going to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and CHP municipalities.

Speaking in a press conference before flying to South Africa, Erdoğan said that the issue of German foundations had been on the agenda in Turkey before, but it was not challenged in the past. He called on the CHP to investigate the municipalities under its control.

"The German foundations have been having similar kind of initiatives in Turkey for a very long time. The leader of the main opposition party should investigate the party's own municipalities," Erdoğan said, adding that he would meet up and share information with him.

Chief Deputy of the CHP Muharrem İnce slammed Erdoğan's claims, saying that the move was an effort to cover up the Lighthouse e.V. case.

The Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, replied to Erdoğan's allegations with a written statement and said the chrarges of the prime minister were "groundless and slander."

The German Konrad Adenauer Foundation also issued a press release on Monday, saying it had not offered any sort of credit to any Turkish municipality or local administration in the country. The foundation also said all their activities were compatible with the laws and regulations in Turkey.

German Foundations Deny Funding PKK

Representatives of various German foundations carrying out projects and activities in Turkey have come forward to say their funds have never been used to aid companies affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, an accusation put forth by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Sunday.

Erdoğan told a group of Turkish journalists on a plane en route to Turkey from Macedonia that he is disturbed by the fact that some German foundations are aiding the PKK, which, he said, is one of the reasons for the probe into the Kurdish Communities Union, or KCK, the political arm of the PKK. The prime minister did not mention by name the foundation to which he referred.

The prime minister also criticized Germany for remaining indifferent to such financial transactions, saying he was unsure of their reasons for doing so. He also confirmed that Turkey notifies Germany whenever such transactions take place. German foundations with officers in Turkey said their activities were transparent and in the open, but noted any organization aiding the terrorist group should pay the price for it.

Friedrich Naumann Foundation Turkey representative Jörg Dehnert told Today's Zaman in an e-mail that the organization's activities and financial affairs were transparent, and the Turkish government was knowledgeable about every aspect of its activities.

"This is a serious allegation. I'm sure the prime minister has [real evidence to back up] that accusation, and he knows us very well. I think he would have directly mentioned our name if he thought we were involved," he said.

Michael Meier, the representative of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung's Turkey Office, who was also contacted by Today's Zaman, also said the prime minister's statements weren't directed at his organization.

"The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung is using German public funds for activities in Turkey. We are transparent and accountable not only to German authorities but, due to our status in Turkey as an association [dernek], we are also transparent and accountable to the Turkish authorities. The Friedrich Ebert Foundation has never given any loan to anybody or any institution as this is not how we work nor is it possible due to our financial regulations," he said.

Ulrike Dufner, the representative of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Association in Turkey, said they could not possibly donate to any agencies due to their legal status.

"German associations active in Turkey cannot offer loans," Dufner said. "What we do is just carry on projects with [civil society organizations] or with democratically elected municipalities. Legally, we are not allowed to provide loans."

She expressed unease with the prime minister's comments, saying:

"We don't understand who the prime minister is getting at. It is clear that it's not us because we aren't allowed to offer loans. We believe the prime minister's statement is not directed at us. But we are also wondering what's wrong with carrying out projects with elected municipalities," Dufner said. "We wonder whether Mr. Erdoğan advises us to cooperate with the municipalities of the Justice and Development Party [AKP]. We don't understand if it would be a crime to cooperate with the municipalities of the Republican People's Party [CHP] and the Peace and Democracy Party [BDP]."

German Embassy Counselor in charge of Press and Public Relations Patrick Heinz said it was too early to comment, saying German officials were still looking into the issue and will refrain from making statements until all the facts are established. The German Foreign Ministry told the Cihan News Agency that it would follow the issue if "concrete evidence is presented." A spokesperson for the ministry said, "The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization both in Germany and the European Union."

GIZ and KfW Under Spotlight

A Turkish daily claimed that the German foundations that are allegedly indirectly funneling money to the PKK could be Germany's state-owned development bank Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau, or KfW, and the German sustainable development agency GIZ, formerly called GTZ. The Milliyet daily made the claim, citing unnamed sources.

The report said the German government and the KfW provided a total of 780 million euros in loans and donations for infrastructure, water treatment and drainage projects in many provinces, including Ankara and İstanbul, between 1980 and 2006. Although the prime minister said the foundations are signing loan deals with municipalities run by the main opposition CHP and the BDP, the report says the KfW also finances infrastructure projects of other municipalities, including those run by Erdoğan's AKP.

Milliyet quoted BDP Diyarbakır Mayor Osman Baydemir, who confirmed foreign funds' assistance to the municipality, but said this aid is being inspected by the Treasury and the State Planning Organization, or DPT.

Istanbul to Host D-8 Industry Ministers Meeting

Istanbul will host the meeting of industry ministers of D-8 member states on Tuesday.

Turkish Science, Industry and Technology Ministry will host the meeting at Halic Congress Center.

Turkish Science, Industry and Technology Minister Nihat Ergun will make the meetings opening remarks.

Turkey An Important Economic Player, Says U.S. Chamber of Commerce President

Turkey was an important economic player and has had many opportunities to work with United States companies, said Thomas Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who delivered a speech at a meeting held in his honor by the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey, or DEIK, American-Turkish Council in Istanbul on Monday.

Donohue said Turkey and the United States, as strategic allies and trade partners, shared several global difficulties and opportunities. Touching on the American business world, and the latest developments in the United States, Donohue said that they planned to focus on new markets for U.S. products and services, provide economic and rich supply of energy and support tourism sector. These areas were the ones in which Turkey recorded great progress, he said.

While Turkey is located at crossroads between the largest energy consumers and the main energy suppliers, Donohue said he believed safe and diversified energy resources were the key for global stability, and that

Turkey and the U.S. could, and should, work together for mutual strategic gains. In regard to commercial relations between the two countries, the Chamber of Commerce president said that there was a lack of awareness in the United States regarding opportunities in Turkey and the U.S. companies did not know what could be done in Turkey.

"We tell them that Turkey is a very important economic player. There are tremendous opportunities in Turkey for American companies," he said. "Turkey, a producer of first-class goods, has a great strategic location and labor force. We are trying to change perceptions."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is reportedly working on a new visa procedure and tax system to attract more investors from Turkey. A Turkey Working Group has been set under the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Donohue is scheduled to meet with Turkish officials during his stay in Turkey.

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