A United States State Department spokesperson has said the U.S. is working with Turkey to reduce its dependence on Iranian oil and find alternative sources of supply in a bid to further squeeze the Islamic republic over its suspected nuclear program; a reduction of oil imports from Iran may also help Turkey bypass U.S. sanctions.

The U.S. exempted Japan and 10 European Union nations from financial sanctions because they have significantly cut purchases of Iranian crude oil, but left Iran's top customers China and India, and its allies such as Turkey and South Korea, exposed to the possibility of such steps.

The decision announced on Tuesday is a victory for the 11 countries, whose banks have been given a six-month reprieve from the threat of being cut off from the U.S. financial system under new sanctions designed to pressure Iran over its nuclear program.

Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yıldız said on Wednesday that Turkey could still get a waiver over sanctions, which the United States plans to implement on countries buying oil from Iran, despite not being named on a list of exempted nations released by Washington.

"Turkey's absence from the United States waiver list regarding the Iran issue doesn't mean it will not be included," Yıldız told reporters at an energy conference in Ankara.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan plans to raise the issue with President Barack Obama during a nuclear security summit in South Korea later this month, Turkish officials told Reuters.

Diplomatic sources in Ankara told Today's Zaman that the Turkish government officials have been continuing their efforts to have Turkey included in the waiver list of Washington.

Turkey imports around 200,000 barrels per day of oil from Iran, representing over 7 percent of Iran's oil exports. Yıldız said Turkey would continue to buy oil from Iran until existing contracts expire.

Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in a press briefing that Turkey is one of the countries that the U.S. is working with to support Turkey's efforts to reduce its dependence on Iranian crude, to find alternative sources of supply.

"We will continue those discussions," Nuland said, stressing that this is about the overall effort to try to reduce Turkey's dependence on Iranian oil.

Yıldız said Turkey could not halt purchasing from Iran unless other suppliers were lined up; Turkey has struck a new contract to buy oil from Libya, and has held inconclusive talks over the possibility of buying from Saudi Arabia.

Turkey's sole refiner Tüpraş, a unit of Koç Holding, is the main customer for Iranian crude. It buys some 30 percent of its crude oil from Iran and has a 9 million ton annual purchase contract.

Koç Energy Group Chairman Erol Memioğlu told reporters last month that Tüpraş's existing oil contract with Iran ends in August, adding that he expected more clarity on the details of the sanctions in May, before Washington's sanctions on oil-related transactions take effect on June 28.

Tüpraş also warned that the price it pays for oil could increase if it has to seek alternatives to Iranian oil.


Syria Supporting PKK, Report Indicates

An intelligence report submitted to the Turkish government suggests that the disobedient Syrian leadership has revived its support to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, in retaliation for pressure from Ankara on President Bashar al-Assad to step down, the Hürriyet Daily News has learned from reliable sources.

PKK members can move freely inside Syria, and are allowed to bear arms and launch propaganda campaigns against Turkey, the report states, showing a clear change in Damascus' policies, which had banned the PKK's activities in 1999 as a result of a bilateral agreement with Turkey.

Back to the 1990s

Syria gave immense support to the PKK during the 1990s, in an attempt to destabilize Turkey, with which its ties were strained over Syria's claim to Hatay and the waters of the Euphrates.

Apart from sheltering Abdullah Öcalan, the now-imprisoned leader of the PKK, who controlled the group from Damascus for years, Syria also allowed PKK terrorists to train in Syrian territory, from where they infiltrated Turkey to commit attacks.

The intelligence report, which was submitted to some government institutions, also states that the PKK body in Syria was much better organized than that in northern Iraq. It also says that the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, the political offshoot of the PKK in Syria, has recently re-established strong ties with the PKK and launched a propaganda campaign against Turkey.

It also added that the PKK elements in Syria have been in close cooperation to stop mass revolts against the al-Assad regime in northern Syria, particularly in Aleppo, whose residents have close ties with Turkey.

The mobility of some PKK groups has also been observed by the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government; this has appeared on the agenda of security meetings between Ankara and Arbil.

Although Turkey has not yet officially raised this issue as a diplomatic problem with Syria, diplomatic sources said it could be on the agenda for the April 1 meeting of the Friends of Syria group.


Turkey's New Kurdish Plan: Back to the Future

Turkey's new strategy for solving the Kurdish question places greater responsibility on civilian political means that are supported by the new constitution and dialogue with Kurdish political parties, according to top security officials.

A combination of democratic and security measures stands as the country's new counter-terrorism strategy, which rules out any sort of dialogue with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. The plan, which many are calling "back to the future," raises many question marks due to the government's seemingly lukewarm commitment to the "Kurdish initiative."

According to information obtained by the Hürriyet Daily News from the security forces, the strategy will both put more pressure on the PKK to lay down their weapons while also easing conditions to pave the way to a democratic solution of the Kurdish question.

"The only tool to solve this problem is to increase our democratic standards. A libertarian approach that would allow legitimate representatives of Kurds and their lawmakers to freely discuss the demands of the Kurds is very important. This can only be done in a peaceful climate, without the fear of the PKK," an official said.

The road map also envisages greater responsibility for Parliament, particularly with the new constitution.

"Expanding democratic rights and fundamental freedoms and broadening liberties for each and every individual of the Republic of Turkey are the main pillars of this process," the official said.

This change in policy came about as the PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, increased its activities starting last summer and launched a fresh campaign to spark an unprecedented nationwide conflict between Turks and Kurds. Turning Nevruz into a stage for a Kurdish uprising was among the plans, the intelligence services said, suggesting this was designed to spark a massive reaction among Turks, further igniting Turkish nationalism.

"They tried this in 2010 and 2011, but they were not successful. We will not allow them to succeed in 2012 either," an official said, adding that the PKK was also trying to take advantage of the Arab Spring movements for its own ends.

Dialogue Process Nixed

Turkey's National Intelligence Organization, or MIT, secretly held several rounds of meetings with the PKK in 2009 and 2010, while other state officials met with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned PKK leader, on İmralı island, where he is serving a life sentence. Officials, however, say that instead of pushing the process for a breakthrough, the PKK used this dialogue to gain a more advantageous position against the state.

"Therefore, there won't be negotiations or dialogue with either the PKK or Öcalan. The talks could only be resumed on the condition that the PKK agrees to lay down its weapons," an official said.

The talks with Öcalan especially gave him the impression that he had taken control of the process and that he was using the opportunity for purposes other than finding a settlement, officials said. 
The intelligence analysis proves that the only objective of the PKK is to claim its sovereignty over a piece of land in southeastern Anatolia and to let Öcalan be its main ruler.

Erdogan's Message to BDP

Despite the fact that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan uses very harsh language to address the Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, and accuses it of being the mouthpiece of the PKK, it is important to read the prime minister's words from a different angle, officials said.

"The message the prime minister is delivering is that the BDP is still the government's main counterpart in dealing with the Kurdish issue. It has been asked to fulfill its responsibility," an official said. 
"If the BDP sees that their space to make politics expands, then they would really play this role after detaching from the PKK," an official said.

But the BDP's co-chairman, Selahattin Demirtaş, downplayed the strategy in a statement Thursday, calling it a new reflection of the government's unwillingness to boost democratic rights in Turkey.

Barzani Plays A Key Role

In this new road map, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, Masoud Barzani, has a significant role to play, according to officials. Barzani advised a visiting BDP delegation in recent months that Kurds in Turkey should continue their struggle via democratic and political means.

Following intense talks with the KRG, Turkey expects that Barzani will issue a strong call to the PKK during the Kurdish Conference, slated for June, for it to end its armed struggle against Turkey and instead launch a political process. This plan is also backed by Washington, which sees Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds as its main allies in the region.

Barzani's main job is to convince all Kurdish groups to participate in this call on the PKK, a potential development that would leave the militant group isolated from regional Kurdish circles.


Turkey, EU Need Each Other, Bagis Says

Turkey's European Union Minister Egemen Bağış said Thursday that neither the European Union nor Turkey could afford to shut their doors on each other, adding relations were too complicated to ignore.

"Neither the EU nor Turkey have the luxury of saying 'no' to the other. Our relations have never been this interdependent before," Bagis told a round table meeting with Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation Gunilla Carlsson in Istanbul.

The Hürriyet Daily News and Radikal published a joint article Thursday by Carlsson and Ba ğış titled, "Sweden and Turkey Partnering for the Future." Bağış presented Carlsson with the two newspapers when the two met in Istanbul.

"All [of the EU's] members had their hardships when they were candidates, but we have waited for 45 years just to become [a candidate]," Bagis said at the meeting. Bağış also criticized the EU's blocking most of Turkey's accession talks.

"On the one hand, they tell us to work on a legal system and freedom of the press, but on the other hand they do not let us carry on with our membership talks. They want us to do our homework without actually telling us what our homework is," he said.

The Swedish minister, on her part, said it was unacceptable to stall Turkey's accession negotiations because of bilateral issues that have nothing to do with the EU itself.

"We believe that a struggle should be waged to embrace common values that people deeply own, such as democracy, individual freedom and the free market," Carlsson said.

Carlsson underlined the progress Turkey has made in the areas of democracy, minority rights and constitutional reforms, saying that Turkey draws closer every day to meeting the EU's criteria, despite what she called persistent problems with freedom of speech.


Turkey Plans Action on Long Trials, Detentions

Turkey's government is open to proposals to resolve the problem of lengthy pre-trial detentions as part of redoubled efforts to dispel mounting criticism over Turkey's rights record, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin signaled Thursday.

Ergin made the remarks at Parliament's Justice Commission, during a debate on a draft bill that would open the way for the release of thousands of convicts on probation, hours after he said trials in Turkey would end in one year within a period of two years.

Justice and Development Party, or AKP, lawmaker Hakkı Köylü suggested those who had been detained for long periods while awaiting trial should also be included within the scope of the bill.

"Arrest decisions are up to the judges. This bill covers only convicts. Technically, we cannot include detainees in the scope, but if we find a way, let's consider it," Ergin said.

The government has drawn up a separate package of draft amendments aimed at speeding up Turkey's notoriously cumbersome judicial system. The package includes provisions under which a series of charges brought against journalists would be suspended and eventually dropped.

Speaking to NTV television earlier in the day, Ergin said the package would significantly relieve the burden of the judiciary. Within a period of about two years, the reforms would produce a "revolutionary outcome" as the average length of trials would drop to one year, he said while voicing hope that complaints about lengthy detentions would also be reduced to a "minimum."

He also said the law for setting up a special mechanism for those who want to complain about lengthy proceedings was ready and would soon be submitted to the Cabinet.

"The mechanism will help us deal with the 3,000 cases pending at the ECHR [European Court of Human Rights]," Ergin said.

The ECHR announced earlier this week that it would not accept any case from Turkey in connection to long detention periods until September because Ankara is currently drafting a formula to address the issue.


U.S. Religion Report Null, Void, Turkey Says

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedoms 2012 report is "null and void" for Turkey, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said Thursday, criticizing the report that included Turkey among "countries of particular concern."

"The report, which is prepared by politicians representing some interest groups, contradicts the findings of U.S. State Department's annual reports so far," the ministry said in a written statement.

The commission "fell short in understanding" the steps taken recently by Turkey on freedom of religion and protecting the rights of non-Muslim minorities, the statement continued.
The Foreign Ministry also criticized the report for failing to address incidents in Europe based on Islamophobia, with many mosques having been attacked and religious leaders being appointed by impose of state.

The statement claimed "the report [had been] prepared for political reasons."


Operations Continue, 7 Terrorists Killed in Cudi Clashes

Another police officer and seven members of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, were killed in a second day of clashes between security forces and the PKK in the southeastern province of Şırnak on Thursday, following violence surrounding the spring festival of Nevruz, mostly celebrated by Kurds in Turkey.

Meanwhile, Cobra attack helicopters targeted a group of 30 to 40 PKK fighters holed up on Cudi Mountain, in Şırnak. As the clashes between security forces and the PKK continued on Thursday, another PKK member was captured by troops lowered onto the mountain from helicopters.

There are reports that in addition to an officer killed, at least six special operations police officers were wounded in the battles, but further details about their identities have not been released.

Prior to the operation, police forces asked the military to conduct air operations since the location of the terrorists was not suitable for a land operation.

After the military officials informed the police that the coordinates of the area were not appropriate for a land operation, police and gendarmerie special teams conducted the land operation together. On Wednesday, five Turkish special operations police officers were killed in clashes with the PKK on Cudi Mountian.

In a statement released on Thursday, the National Police Department identified the slain soldiers and offered its condolences to the Turkish nation. The statement also said the bodies of the police officers will be sent to their hometowns after a ceremony is held in Şırnak Police Department in their memory.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek and President Abdullah Gül sent a letter of condolence to Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin, strongly condemning the attacks that killed six Turkish special forces.

In a statement released by his office on Wednesday, Erdo ğan added that Turkey is determined to continue its fight against terrorism that threatens the country's unity and the security of citizens. Opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu also offered his condolences to the families of the fallen police officers, wishing a quick recovery for the injured soldiers in a statement released on Wednesday.

In the meantime, the National Police Department sent an official letter to anti-terror units across the country calling on them to tighten security measures as the PKK has recently stepped up its campaign of violence. The letter warned the anti-terror units that PKK members are in preparation for simultaneous attacks, adding that their primary targets are security forces and buildings affiliated with the police department. The department also demanded security measures be tightened in public spaces such as metro stations, means of transport and shopping centers.

The fighting in the mountains flared after thousands of Kurds flocked to the streets of the mainly Kurdish southeast and big cities elsewhere in Turkey for unauthorized demonstrations to mark the spring festival of Nevruz. Police fired teargas and water cannon in clashes with Kurdish protestors. Earlier this week, a police officer died during the street protests in Şırnak's Cizre district.

In a separate incident, another police officer was wounded because of a small explosion near the offices of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in Diyarbakır, the largest city in the mainly Kurdish southeast of the country.

The explosion was caused by a homemade bomb thrown by an unidentified assailant who fled the area. The AKP office is about 100 meters from the building that hosts the offices of Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP.


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