Turkey's parliament on Friday passed a controversial bill to shield intelligence agents from prosecution after several refused a prosecutor's summons over their contacts with Kurdish rebels.

Parliament hastily passed the bill, backed by the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in the early hours of Friday.

The new law requires the prime minister to authorize any court cases against intelligence agents for their work on missions controlled directly by the prime minister.

The bill was passed in the wake of a case involving several members of Turkey's National Intelligence Organisation, or MIT, having contacts with the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.

Prosecutors had summoned several MIT members, including its current chief Hakan Fidan and former head Emre Taner, for questioning over the contacts.

Prosecutors alleged that the MIT members had exceeded their authority when they broached the topic of a political settlement with the rebels, who have been fighting the government for nearly 30 years. When the agents refused to show up for the questioning the prosecutor who issued the summons, Sadrettin Sarikaya, ordered the agents' arrest. He was then pulled from the case.

MIT chief Fidan had secret talks with representatives of the PKK in 2010 in Oslo. Recordings of the Oslo talks between MIT and the Kurdish rebels were leaked in the media last year, sparking outrage among opposition politicians.

They accused the ruling AKP of having abandoned the official position of no contact with the PKK.


Erdogan Returns to Work Following Second Operation

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Thursday with a Bosnian official, his first engagement with a foreign dignitary since undergoing a second round of intestinal surgery last week.

Erdogan held closed-door talks with Bakir Izetbegovic, a member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, at his official residence in Istanbul.

The prime minister, 57, underwent a 30-minute operation on Friday, which his office said was the "second and final part" of intestinal surgery started on November 26.

Erdogan has not been abroad since then and he is expected to resume his busy schedule in March. The Turkish prime minister had a long period of convalescence after his first operation, leading to speculation over his health.

In an interview last month, Erdogan said the surgeons had removed polyps from his intestines, but there had been no trace of cancer.


Academics Unite Against Oppression at Universities

Academics have raised their voice to denounce the "oppression and intimidation" they say they are encountering at Turkish universities.

"Academics are being intimidated, fired or suspended from their positions by rectors or the Higher Educational Council [YÖK] because of their research topics or political ideas. And there are hundreds of university students that are being prosecuted or suspended from the university on accusations of 'aiding terrorist organizations.' The situation is outrageous," Galatasaray University Professor Ahmet İnsel told journalists at a press conference in Istanbul.

Some 400 academics from 50 different universities in Turkey and abroad have formed a solidarity network called "International Workshop Group for Freedom of Research and Education" to act as a watchdog to document and prevent oppression in Turkish universities.

"Today, a wide policy of oppression and intimidation is being systematically implemented in universities under the name of a 'fight on terror.' Hundreds of university students have been arrested like this," İnsel said.

"Our colleague, Professor Büşra Ersanlı, was arrested on unsubstantiated accusations and has been in prison for 108 days. However, she has devoted all her life to maintaining peace. This is the last straw," said Professor Zeynep Gambetti, an assistant professor at Boğaziçi University.

Ersanlı was arrested three and a half months ago for her alleged connections with the Kurdistan Communities Union, or KCK, the alleged urban wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey and much of the international community.

Academics who are especially known for their work on the Kurdish or Armenian issues, as well as those known for being political opponents of the government, are being systematically suspended from universities, Gambetti said.


Ankara Denies Criticizing Syrian Aid Corridor Plans

Foreign Ministry officials have denied allegations by the Turkish media that the government demanded any humanitarian aid corridor to Syria be established through the Mediterranean Sea, rather than Turkish territory.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, officials said Turkey will abide by resolutions based on the consensus of international bodies, such as the United Nations, and claimed that it is too early to comment on the possible location for a humanitarian corridor to Syria, the establishment of which will depend on a UN Security Council resolution.


NATO Chief to Discuss Next Summit in Ankara

For the 60th anniversary of Turkey's accession to NATO, the alliance's secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, is visiting Turkey ahead of the next NATO summit.

"The agenda of the next NATO summit will be discussed in the talks," a Turkish diplomat told the Hürriyet Daily News. That summit will take place May 20-21 in Chicago, with the alliance's role in Afghanistan expected to be among the key issues.

NATO members have recently been discussing how to pay for Afghanistan's security forces once they take over from NATO forces in 2014.
NATO also plans to declare the interim operational capability of a missile defense system, which NATO members agreed to at the previous Lisbon summit, to defend European territories against ballistic-missile threats.

Turkey hosts a radar system in the Kürecik district of Malatya as part of the NATO anti-missile project.

"The structure of command for the system will be on the agenda," the Turkish diplomat said.

The Chicago summit is also expected to discuss new ways for NATO members to prioritize, specialize and share multinational projects so that they can keep and improve their security capabilities, even in times of economic austerity -- an approach known as "smart defense."

Some NATO members are urging the alliance to further cooperate with Israel, an idea Turkey opposes due to rift between two countries after the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010, in which Israel raided a Turkish aid ship trying to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

NATO said Saturday that it was considering an Israeli offer to contribute a warship to the alliance's naval patrol in the Mediterranean, despite Turkey's opposition. NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said the alliance was prepared to enhance practical cooperation with all partner nations in the region, including Israel.

Turkey has not changed its position and still rejects the idea. Another Turkish official told the Daily News that NATO requires consensus to take such decisions. The issue is expected to be part of the agenda of Rasmussen's talks in Ankara.
In the past, Israeli warships and Air Force jets joined some NATO exercises, but Israel's participation in a naval operation in the Mediterranean Sea has been rejected by Turkey since 2010.


Iran Nuke Row Nixes Turkey's Oil Efforts

Global instability stemming in part from tensions between Washington and Tehran over the latter's nuclear program are resulting in increased domestic energy costs in Turkey despite Ankara's best efforts to import more affordable energy resources, Energy Minister Taner Yıldız said Thursday.

"Energy prices continues to rise with the pressure triggered by the global political instability in spite of all of Turkey's efforts to bring down the prices through bilateral agreements," Yıldız said during a Turkey-South Africa Joint Economic Commission meeting in Ankara. 
"We are not pleased with this. Turkey's efforts –- to agree on cheaper energy imports –- are still considered wasted."

Noting that crude oil prices per barrel have risen from $108 to $118 due to Western threats to impose sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program and Tehran's counter-threats to close the Strait of Hormuz to tanker traffic, Yıldız said: "Even uttering the word sanction is enough to be a burden on our shoulders."

But Yıldız also said Turkey's trade relations with Iran were not suffering, but continuing as usual. 
Despite Turkey's extraordinary winter conditions, the country continues to import gas and oil without problems from its eastern neighbor.

"Our demands for cheaper natural gas are continuing on a different line than our trade relations with Iran," Yıldız said. 
Turkey took Iran to the International Arbitration Court on Jan. 16 due to a dispute over gas prices. 
Iraq is also considering options to export crude from its southern terminals if Iran blocks the Strait of Hormuz, the transit point for about two-thirds of its production, Bloomberg Iraqi Planning Minister Ali Youssef al-Shukri was quoted as saying Thursday. 

Turkey's southern neighbor is considering three alternative routes, including to the west through Syria and Lebanon and to the north through Turkey's southern port Ceyhan on the Mediterranean, he said.


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