ISTANBUL: Turkey on Thursday sent a first ship loaded with aid for its embattled regional ally Qatar, which has been hit by sanctions from Gulf powers led by Saudi Arabia, state media said. Almost two dozen Turkish troops also arrived in Qatar as Ankara ramps up military support for Doha, even as it tries not to irritate Riyadh.

Turkey has already sent over 100 planes with food and other aid for Qatar, but this is the first time a cargo ship has embarked on the voyage to Doha. The ship left the Aegean port of Aliaga in Izmir province with around 4,000 tonnes of fruit, vegetables and other foodstuffs on board, the Anadolu news agency said. It should arrive in 10 days.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain broke off relations with Qatar on June 5, accusing it of supporting “terrorism” and leaving Doha economically and politically isolated.

Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci said on Wednesday that Turkey had already sent 105 cargo flights to Qatar loaded with aid to help the country through the crisis.

A bill was also fast-tracked through the Turkish parliament this month allowing Ankara to send up to several thousand troops to a base in Qatar.

A contingent of 23 soldiers and five armoured vehicles arrived in Qatar on Thursday, the Turkish army said in a statement.

The Hurriyet daily said that there were now 113 Turkish soldiers in Qatar, while adding that the armoured vehicles did not include tanks.

The crisis has put Turkey in a delicate position as Ankara regards Qatar its chief ally in the Gulf, but is also keen to maintain its improving relations with the key regional power Saudi Arabia.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu made a tour of Gulf capitals last week, including Riyadh and Doha, in the hope of finding a solution but his visit appeared not to bear any fruit.

Ankara has stopped short of directly criticising Saudi Arabia’s actions, merely calling on Riyadh to take a lead role in solving the crisis.

Talks with Saudi king

In a sign of the importance of the relations with Riyadh, Erdogan held phone talks late on Wednesday with Saudi King Salman after the sudden appointment of his son Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince in place of Mohammed bin Nayef.

Erdogan also spoke to Mohammed bin Salman and offered his congratulations over the move, Anadolu said.

Both sides expressed a commitment to further strengthening relations between Ankara and Riyadh and to “step up efforts” to end the tensions concerning Qatar, it added.

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey had been damaged by Riyadh’s role in the 2013 ousting of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, a close ally of Ankara.

But ties thawed considerably after the accession of Salman to the throne in 2015, with the king warmly welcomed on visits to Turkey.

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2017

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