Turkey has decided to maintain the sanctions it imposed on France after the nation's assembly endorsed a bill making it a crime to deny that World War I-era mass killings of Armenians constituted a genocide, a government spokesman said on Monday.

Bülent Arınç, who is also deputy prime minister, told reporters following a Cabinet meeting on Monday that the controversial French bill on the "Armenian genocide" was brought up at the meeting. He welcomed the ruling of the French Constitutional Council, which last week ruled that the bill is "unconstitutional" and violates freedom of speech.

Shortly after the ruling was announced, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said the Cabinet would meet to consider whether to restart economic, political and military contacts with France, which were all frozen after French Parliament passed the law on Jan. 23. Turkish officials argued that France's center-right government had supported the law to secure the votes of some 500,000 Armenians living in France. Ankara denounced the bill as an attack on freedom of expression.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy asked his government last Tuesday to draft a new version of the genocide-denial law after it was struck down as unconstitutional. "The President of the Republic considers that [genocide] denial is intolerable and must therefore be punished," his office wrote in a statement.

"He has asked the government to prepare a new draft taking into account the decision of the Constitutional Council," the statement added.

Arınç downplayed Sarkozy's second attempt to bring a modified version of the genocide-denial bill to the French Parliament, saying the French assembly will go to recess on Tuesday before campaigning for presidential elections, which are slated for April, starts. Arınç added that Davutoğlu urged Cabinet members during the meeting that previously announced sanctions and measures taken against France must continue.


Turkey, U.S. Hold Joınt Air Drılls in Konya

The Turkish and United States air forces began joint air exercises Monday in Turkey's central province of Konya that will end on March 16, sources from the U.S. base at Spangdahlem, Germany said.

The drills, known as Anatolian Falcon 2012, are a bilateral initiative and do not involve other countries, the sources said. Turkish officials were not immediately available for comment.

A statement from the U.S. base this weekend said 15 aircraft from the 480th Fighter Squadron and more than 250 support airmen had departed "for the weapons-training deployment geared to expanding and honing military interoperability between the U.S. and Turkish air forces."

Anatolian Falcon 2012 is a bilateral training exercise involving air missions that include interdiction, attack, air superiority, defense suppression, airlift, air refueling and reconnaissance.

"The 480th is excited to get on the road to fly with our NATO ally and strengthen the bonds that have been built during the last 60 years," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Paul Murray, 480th FS commander. "In addition, this is an excellent opportunity to exercise our military interoperability as we pursue together regional peace and stability."


Prime Minister Allows Investigation of MIT Official Involved in Abduction of Syrians

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has allowed an investigation into a National Intelligence Organization, or MİT, official who was allegedly involved in the abduction of two Syrian military defectors while prosecutors still wait to receive permission from Erdoğan to investigate three other MİT staff who were also suspected to have been involved in the incident.

The four MİT officials are suspected of involvement in the September abduction of Syrian military defectors Mustafa Kassum and Col. Hussein Harmush. Kassum and Harmush were handed over to the Syrian security forces after they were kidnapped from a refugee camp in Altınözü, Hatay province, near the Syrian border. They had defected in June.

The Specially Authorized Adana Prosecutor's Office recently requested a permission from the prime minister to investigate the officials, Erdoğan has allowed an investigation into Ö.S. who works as a translator at MİT.

The move on the part of the prosecutor's office follows an amendment made to MİT law last month that stipulates that permission must be secured from the prime minister before the launch of an investigation into intelligence officials.

The government pressed ahead with the amendment after MİT Undersecretary Hakan Fidan and four other top MİT officers were summoned to testify by the İstanbul specially authorized prosecutor in early February.

When the abduction first appeared in the media, top MİT regional agent M. A. A. informed Ö.S. that he had been caught on camera at the refugee camp. His conversation with Ö. S. was recorded by police.

The prosecutor requested an arrest warrant from the court for MİT Adana regional chief N. B. and Hatay regional chief M. A. A. After the demand by the prosecutor, the two individuals were transferred to MİT headquarters in Ankara for protection from investigation.


Main Opposition Party Strives to Block Debated Education Bill

The main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, on Monday urged for the withdrawal of the controversial education bill and vowed to do its best to block it, as dozens of lawmakers lined up to speak against the draft at Parliament's Education Commission.

The CHP decided at a closed parliamentary group meeting that a crowded group of its members would attend the commission meeting Monday. About 50 lawmakers from the CHP and other opposition parties requested to speak in a move aimed at protracting the proceedings.

"The proposal should be withdrawn and debated in detail, and then brought back to Parliament. Otherwise, I will speak for 12 hours at this meeting," CHP Deputy Engin Özkoç said. He was still speaking when the Hürriyet Daily News went to print.

Vocational Schools

The reform plan, drafted by senior deputies of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, increased mandatory education from eight to 12 years with three tiers of four years each. It has come under fire by both opposition parties and leading non-governmental organizations.

Under the draft, students would start attending vocational schools after a four-year basic education, but they will be able to change their choices afterward. Critics say the government's main objective is to reintroduce the imam-hatip vocational religious schools after primary education.

They point out that students in Western countries are asked to choose vocational programs no earlier than the age of 16. The draft is also under fire because of plans to give students the opportunity to opt out of school after eight years in favor of distance learning, a provision that many believe would undermine the schooling of girls.

The sub-panel of Parliament's Education Commission discussed proposals of civic groups and trade unions on the much-criticized education reform bill last week. CHP Deputy Nur Serter, a sub-panel member, said Monday she felt "deceived" during the meetings.

"I saw that the issues on which we reached an agreement were changed with proposals [by AKP deputies]. About 30 NGOs submitted proposals, and except four or five, they all backed the [current] eight-year uninterrupted primary education. But the commission did not take these views into consideration. I'm sure we will witness similar practices again in this commission," she said.

Stressing that there should be a pedagogical approach to education instead of ideological, Serter proposed the commission should lend an ear to deans of education faculties.

Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, Deputy Özcan Yeniçeri, for his part, criticized a provision that would reduce the school starting age from seven to six, recalling that such an arrangement was abandoned in the past.


Alevis Demand Charter be Harsh on Hate Crimes

Alevi representatives demanded constitutional protection against hate crimes in a meeting with the Parliament commission tasked with drafting a new constitution, drawing attention to the recent marking of Alevi homes in Adıyaman, which has raised concerns about possible attacks.

Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin described the door-marking incident as "child's play," but representatives of the Federation of Alevi-Bektaşi Associations told Parliament's Constitution Conciliation Commission Monday that "penalties for hate crimes stemming from factors such as religion, language or race need to be increased."

They asked that the Alevi identity be recognized in the new constitution and also put forward suggestions such as the abolition of the Religious Affairs Directorate and regulations against military coups.

"The new charter must be people-centered, as well as multi-cultural, multi-identity and multi-faith," Federation Chairman Selahattin Özel said.

Discrimination Ban

The federation emphasized the importance of fundamental concepts such as respect for different languages, religions, ethnic identities, beliefs, sexes, marital statuses and gender identities and suggested that discrimination be legally banned in order to protect everyone on equal terms.

Minority faiths and religions especially needed official recognition and equal rights regardless of the number of their followers, the federation said, suggesting the new constitution abolish mandatory religion classes in public schools and ensure the right to education in native languages.

The concept of "constitutional citizenship" should also be introduced, according to the Alevi representatives. The current definition of "minority" should be removed and replaced with "equal citizens."

The group would also like to see cemevis gain recognition as Alevi houses of worship and the removal of dervish convents from the museum category and their return to their owners, together with properties belonging to the Armenian, Greek, Jewish and Syriac communities.

The parliamentary commission met earlier this month with the religious leaders of Turkey's Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian and Syriac minorities to hear their demands concerning the new constitution.


Mınıster Says Cyprus Annexatıon Remarks Mısrepresented

Turkey's Minister for European Union Affairs, Egemen Bağış, said on Monday that Turkey's Cyprus policy remains unchanged after his weekend remarks suggesting annexation of Turkish Cyprus caused a media stir.

"It saddened me to see that there are some pro-Greek Cyprus circles on the island who tried to interpret my remarks in a certain way by picking and highlighting only some parts of them," Bağış said in Ankara, apparently referring to protests from Turkish Cypriot opposition regarding his statements.

"Our sole objective is for a solution to be reached on the island, acceptable to both Cypriot sides, so that a unified Cyprus could assume the rotating presidency of the EU in July," Bağış said. "But in case no settlement emerges, all options are under consideration."

The EU Affairs minister said he acknowledged that annexation of Turkish Cyprus to Turkey could be an option when asked by a journalist if the options he talked about included annexation as well.

"We are not introducing a new policy on Cyprus here. Our main goal remains a solution as soon as possible. But no one can expect Turkey to abandon the [Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus] KKTC if no solution is found," Bağış said.

Bağış was quoted in the Turkish Cypriot press over the weekend as saying all options are on the table regarding the fate of Cyprus, including annexation of the KKTC to Turkey.

"Reunification under a deal that [Turkish and Greek Cypriot] leaders could reach, creation of two independent states after an agreement between the two leaders if they are unable to reach a deal for reunification, or annexation of the KKTC to Turkey. These are all options on the table," Bağış said, according to Turkish Cypriot media.

The minister's remarks elicited protests from the KKTC opposition. Main opposition Republican Turks Party, or CTP, leader Özkan Yorgancıoğlu condemned the EU affairs minister's remarks, saying the idea of annexing the KKTC to Turkey is unacceptable.

Turkish Cypriot leader Derviş Eroğlu and Greek Cypriot leader Dimitris Christofias have been holding talks to reunite the island, but the two sides are unable to report any significant progress from the talks, under way since 2008. Turkey says it supports UN-backed talks to reunite the island.

Ankara has also declared that it will suspend dialogue with the EU presidency when Greek Cyprus, internationally recognized to represent the entire island, takes over the rotating term presidency of the 27-nation bloc in July.


French-Turk Friction Clouds Syria Meeting

As Turkey prepares to host the second gathering of the "Friends of Syria" group to discuss the Syrian crisis in Istanbul in March, Ankara is still deciding whether to invite French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe. Political ties between the two countries have been strained over a "genocide" bill.

"We haven't sent any invitation to any country yet. We will still consider inviting Juppe," a Turkish diplomat told the Hürriyet Daily News Monday. Turkey had not ruled out the participation of France, since it would not be a bilateral meeting, but rather a multi-party gathering, the diplomat said, implying a higher likelihood he would be invited.

If Turkey decides to invite France to the gathering, the invitation would be for Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, not French President Nicholas Sarkozy, as the conference would be at the ministerial level, the diplomat said.

Juppe is known to be against the law the French Parliament passed in December 2011, which made denying the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against its Armenian population in the World War I era a criminal offense.

The French Constitutional Council canceled the legislation, calling it "unconstitutional," but Sarkozy ordered his government to draft a new bill, which can only be done in the next term of French Parliament after the elections in June.

The Friends of Syria group's third meeting was planned to convene in France later, probably with the participation of heads of state, if the group decided to do so at the Istanbul meeting, the diplomat said.

The diplomat said Turkey had not decided whether to participate in the gathering if invited by the French government because of Sarkozy's attitude of insisting on the law despite the French Constitutional Council's rejection of the legislation.

While the Constitutional Council was obvious, it was not certain what would happen in the end about the denial law, the diplomat said.


Davutoglu Meets Allawi, Urges Stability, Rejects Sectarian Rift in Iraq

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, meeting with al-Iraqiya leader Ayad Allawi on Monday, emphasized stability in Iraq and recommended that Shiite and Sunni political groups reach a consensus under the constitutional system.

A Turkish diplomat told Today's Zaman that Davutoğlu pointed out all political groups have to abide by the Iraqi constitution, which provides an equal say to Shiite and Sunni groups in the political system. He said the constitution is a key to provide stability and to end sectarian conflict, the diplomat said.

Davutoğlu met on Monday with Allawi, the leader of Iraq's Sunni-backed political coalition al-Iraqiya behind closed doors and there were no immediate press statement after the meeting.

The meeting came amid tensions that have been simmering between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite political groups since the Iraqi government, led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, one of the top politicians from the Sunni minority, on charges of running death squads in December.

Hashemi's Iraqiya, which accuses al-Maliki of trying to marginalize the Sunni minority and cement his grip on power, then announced a boycott of Parliament, triggering a political crisis that somehow abated in recent weeks after the Iraqiya bloc agreed to lift the boycott and return to Parliament.

Hashemi has been in Kurdish-run northern Iraq, refusing to return to Baghdad out of fear that he will not receive a fair trial. But on Sunday, tensions rose again when the Iraqi government said it had demanded the autonomous Kurdish administration hand over Hashemi, saying the Interior Ministry received information that Hashemi intends to flee Iraq.

This is not the first time Baghdad have demanded that authorities in the Kurdistan region hand over the fugitive vice president. The Iraqi government also made an official demand in January.

Hashemi denies the accusations and has called for the referral of his case to the Kurdistan region, but Iraq's judiciary has rejected his request.

Turkey, which has enjoyed close ties with Hashemi, has expressed concern over the developments and said it feared Iraq could descend into chaos, much like the scene in 2003 immediately after Sunni leader Saddam Hussein was brought down by U.S. intervention.


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