There are "strong signals" that the Friends of Syria group could recognize the opposition Syrian National Congress as the sole "legitimate representative of the Syrian people" when it meets April 1 in Istanbul, according to a council member.

"There are some countries giving support to the proposal and Turkey is among them," the Syrian dissident told the Hürriyet Daily News Sunday.

The Friends of Syria group recognized the council as a "legitimate representative of the Syrian people" in its previous meeting Feb. 24. Ankara "does not rule out" the prospect that the council will be declared the sole representative next week, a Turkish diplomat told the Daily News.

"It's too early to speak. The Syrian opposition should expand its base and come to a point at which it can say it represents all segments of society," the diplomat said.

Turkey, meanwhile, believes that United Nations-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, is not pressing the Syrian regime strongly enough on ending the violence. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu asked Annan, in a phone conversation on Friday, "to apply more pressure on [President Bashar] al-Assad and cautioned that he should not allow the Syrian leader to gain time from his mission," the diplomat said.

Annan agreed to increase pressure on Damascus during the phone conversation, he said. His mission should not pave the way for more bloodshed through the manipulation of the Syrian administration, the diplomat said. Opposition representatives were scheduled to meet Monday in Istanbul in an effort to unite and draw up a joint position.

Turkey Temporarily Closes Embassy, Recalls Envoy In Syria

Turkey suspended all activities at its embassy in the Syrian capital of Damascus on Monday as the security situation in Syria has deteriorated further, the Foreign Ministry said.

Citing Turkish diplomatic sources, the state-run Anatolia news agency said Turkey has also temporarily recalled its ambassador to the Syrian capital. According to sourcse, Ambassador Ömer Önhon and the Turkish diplomatic staff in Damascus are expected to arrive in Ankara soon.

A ministry official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with ministry regulations, said the embassy was being closed due to the security situation in Syria.

Last week, the ministry called on all Turkish citizens in neighboring Syria to return to Turkey as soon as possible, saying it planned to close the consular section of its Damascus embassy.

"It is evident that developments in Syria pose serious security risks to our citizens [in Syria]. In this regard, Turkish citizens in Syria are strongly advised to return home," the ministry said in a statement.

The ministry also recalled that it had earlier issued a travel warning for Turkish citizens planning to go to Syria. It had warned Turkish nationals not to travel to Syria unless absolutely necessary, due to difficulties in maintaining public order, while urging those currently in Syria to be cautious and remain in contact with Turkish missions at all times.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently said Turkey was on the brink of breaking diplomatic ties with Syria and withdrawing its ambassador.

IHH Chairman Says Turkish Journalists Missing In Syria Alive, Healthy

Two Turkish journalists who have been missing in Syria for around two weeks are "certainly" alive and in good health, Bülent Yıldırım, who heads the Humanitarian Aid Foundation, or İHH, said on Sunday.

Speaking to the state-run Anatolia news agency, Yıldırım said they "know for certain that Adem Özköse and Hamit Coşkun, who went missing near Idlib as they were engaged in their profession of journalism, are alive and in good health."

Özköse, a reporter from the İstanbul-based Gerçek Hayat magazine and the Milat daily, arrived with Coşkun, a cameraman, in Syria on March 5. They were last heard from on March 10.

Noting that the association is closely following the situation, Yıldırım said he is personally involved in "talks related to the incident."

"We are sorry that this process lasted longer than we expected. I advise the families of our journalist friends to wait for their return with patience," he said.

Noting that negotiations with Syrian authorities to ensure the return of the journalists are still under way, Yıldırım said he cannot share more detailed information "due to the sensitivity of the issue."

Also last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu called the family of missing journalist Özköse and assured them that the journalists are alive and safe.

Anatolia reported last week that unnamed local sources said the two journalists were handed over to Syrian intelligence forces by pro-regime Shabiha militias in the village of al-Fua, in Idlib, which has been the scene of heavy fighting between the Syrian military and opposition forces in recent days.

Turkey, U.S. Join Hands On Iran, Syria, PKK Fight

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Barack Obama agreed Sunday on the need to send "non-lethal" aid to Syrian rebels, including communications equipment, a U.S. official said after their meeting in Seoul.

The leaders agreed that a Friends of Syria group meeting April 1 in Istanbul should seek to provide such aid and medical supplies, according to U.S. Deputy National Security adviser Ben Rhodes after they met on the eve of a nuclear security summit.

The two leaders held a joint press conference after their nearly 90-minute meeting. Obama said the political developments in Syria dominated the agenda of the meeting and that Ankara and Washington would continue to work together on the crisis in Syria. Erdoğan also said his Iran visit this week would mostly focus on Syria.

"It was a very fruitful meeting," Erdoğan said. "We had a chance to evaluate the situation in Syria. It made us happy to see that our opinions are similar on the matter."

Washington has said several times that it is looking at providing non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, whom the U.S. says should step down.
The White House has said it does not favor arming the rebels, arguing that further "militarizing" the conflict would worsen civilian bloodshed. In the talks with Erdoğan, Obama said the U.S. and Turkey agreed that "there should be a process" of transition to a "legitimate government" in Syria.

Erdoğan said 17,000 refugees had fled from Syria to Turkey.

"We cannot be spectators" to the humanitarian crisis sparked by the crackdown on rebel groups that has killed more than 9,000 people, he said.

Al-Assad Survives With Backing Of Russia, China, Iran

There is a revival of relations between the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and the al-Assad regime, Erdoğan said while en route to Seoul.

"In the past, al-Assad handed over the members of the PKK, but, today, he is protecting them," the prime minister said, adding that the government was still working on a buffer zone inside Syria due to the developments. "We are seeking to involve Russia, China and Iran into to reach a solution. Al-Assad is trying to buy time. He is surviving with the backing of Russia, China and Iran and his government has budget problems. Whenever the opposition gains strength, his departure will be very quick."

The prime minister also said they are on the verge of breaking all diplomatic relations with Syria, which would include pulling the country's ambassador out of Syria.

Fight Against Terrorism

The two leaders also discussed Iran, with Obama saying there was still time to resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff through diplomacy but that the window for such a solution was closing.

The U.S. president also touched on the much-debated issue of religious freedom in Turkey and said he was happy to see that they were on the same page.
Erdoğan also mentioned Turkey's fight against the PKK, saying the U.S. was on Turkey's side. "It is good to see United States with us in our fight against this terrorist group," Erdoğan told reporters. "Our fight will continue, but we will also continue political negotiations as well."
In response, Obama said they were in harmony in the fight against the PKK. They also discussed the current situation in Iraq.
The prime minister further said they hoped to come closer to realizing the "expected future for Cyprus."

Turkey To Boost Defense Ties With Oman, UAE

Turkey is seeking to bolster defense industry ties with Oman and the United Arab Emirates as part of efforts to boost defense industry cooperation with Islamic states following a recent high-level visit to the two countries.

"Oman is particularly interested in the products of [Turkey's missile maker] Roketsan, [the private armored vehicle maker of] FNSS and [the ammunition maker] MKEK," said one Turkish procurement official.

A team consisting mainly of officials from the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, or SSM, visited top officials from the two countries under the direction of Deputy Defense Minister Kemal Yardımcı last week.

"They are also interested in our gun boats," said the official, adding that the total value of the systems in which Oman has expressed serious interest amount to several hundred million dollars.

UAE Interested In Turkey

"In the UAE, a top company is interested in investing in one of our defense companies," the official said.

The UAE is already a leading country with whom Turkey has strong defense ties. FNSS, a major Turkish armored vehicle maker, is in talks with Al Jabir, a UAE company, to conduct the joint production of armored vehicles.

Kaya Yazgan, secretary general of the Defense Industry Manufacturers Association, has said there are Islamic countries dealing with the Turkish defense industry, whose exports are believed to have been well over $1 billion last year.

Turkey's defense exports amounted to $250 million seven years ago, and surpassed the $1 billion figure a year for the first time in 2010.

The Turkish Defense Exporters Union said Islamic countries topped Turkish defense exports last year. The union's list includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the United States, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Lebanon and Italy as Turkey's main 10 buyers; eight of the countries are Muslim.

Among Islamic buyers, Saudi Arabia buys armored vehicles, military radios and rocket systems, while Turkmenistan purchases small navy vessels made by the Yonca Onuk and Dearsan shipyards.

"Actually, you can find Indonesia, Malaysia and Qatar among Turkey's real and prospective buyers," said one Turkish procurement official. Last year, Turkey sold armored vehicles worth $600 million to Malaysia in the largest single defense export and is seeking to sell U209 and U214 submarines to Indonesia in partnership with Germany's HDW shipyard.

Third Turkish Truck Driver Killed In Syrian Violence In Past 10 Days

A Turkish truck driver who died of fatal wounds on Sunday in Turkey has become the third Turkish truck driver killed in the ongoing Syrian violence in the past 10 days.

Suphi Ezer, 45, who was heavily injured in Syria, died on Sunday in a hospital in Gaziantep, a city near the Syrian border. He was wounded in gunfire on March 16 and brought to Gaziantep Avukat Cengiz Gökçek State Hospital for treatment. He was then transferred to Gaziantep University's Şahinbey Research Hospital and remained in intensive care ever since. Ezer suffered from three bullet wounds and a broken arm.

Ezer's body was sent to his hometown in Hatay's Reyhanlı district. He is the third Turkish truck driver killed in the violence in Syria in the past 10 days. Another Turkish driver, Mustafa Üçtaş, was shot to death in Idlib last week. He was a father of three.

On March 15, Hasan Koçak, another Turkish truck driver, died in an armed conflict as he was passing through Syria.

Fener Greek Patriarch 'Encourages' Turkish Government On Minority Rights

Just because the Patriarch praised the Turkish government on an international platform does not mean all of the Greek community's problems have been solved, opinion leaders from the Greek community in Turkey said.

Turkey's stance toward minorities is praiseworthy, Fener Greek Patriarch Bartholomew said while meeting the former Greek Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou on Friday; his statement was interpreted as giving support to the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government.

"We are able to breathe freely again on several matters thanks to the courageous administration of the Erdoğan government," Bartholomew said at the meeting with Papandreou. "Circumstances are better than the past for the Greeks and other minorities."

On Saturday, the Patriarch once again expressed his contentment that the title deed for a Greek elementary school building had been returned to a Greek foundation. While he was expressing his satisfaction at the Galata school, but he also drew attention to the fact that several churches that belonged to the community had still not been returned.

Education Bill Set To Hit Floor Amid New Debate In Turkey

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said there will be no exam for students to enroll in universities, and the vocational education in the country will be boosted, while the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, imposed a travel ban on its lawmakers to make sure the draft bill is approved in Parliament.

The number of female students is well below average in the southeastern provinces, despite campaigns to encourage parents to send their daughters to school; and many experts believe that to give the parents the option of home school with an education reform draft will cause the numbers to drop even more.

The university entry exam will be scrapped and the thousands of private teaching centers that prepare students for the exam would be closed, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said.

"Those centers will either turn themselves into high schools or will be shut down. We do not want people to spend their scarce [financial] resources on that," Erdoğan told reporters accompanying him on a flight to Seoul over the weekend.

Erdoğan also emphasized the need to boost vocational education, pointing to European countries, where he said up to 70 percent of the students attend such schools.

"We'll allow organized industrial zones to open vocational schools. The kids will both study and do internships. They may earn money as well," he said.

The distance learning option in a controversial education reform bill has been designed for the girls of conservative families, Erdoğan said despite previous denials on the matter from officials.

"Particularly in the southeast, families refuse to send their daughters to school after they enter adolescence. Distance learning is for that. The [bill] would open the door for home study," he said. Officials had previously said the home study option after eight years of regular classes would be available only to limited groups, like students with disabilities or prodigies.

The bill, expected to be put up for debate in Parliament Tuesday, has attracted pointed criticism on the grounds that it would undermine the schooling of girls.

Travel Ban

The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has imposed a travel ban on its lawmakers from Tuesday until April 5 to ensure full attendance in the parliamentary debate on the education bill.

"No one will leave Ankara. Parliament will be working even during nights until the laws are passed. Despite all the opposition's obstructions, the people are awaiting the [education bill]," senior AKP Deputy Oğuz Kağan Köksal said. The legislative drive will also target the adoption of a bill on trade unions, he said.

Ahead of his visit to Seoul, which will be followed by a trip to Tehran, Erdoğan urged his lawmakers to stand firm on the bill and ensure it is approved in his absence.

Infuriated by the bill, the main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, is scheduled to hold a rally at Ankara's Tandoğan Square Tuesday. Meanwhile, the head of Parliament's Education Commission, Nabi Avci, has said the education bill will pave the way for the re-opening of the secondary stage of foreign-owned schools like Robert College or St. Benoit. Such schools would be allowed to hold their own exams to select students, he said.

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