ANKARA: Turkey began testing on Monday its Russian missile defence system, local media reported, despite repeated calls from the United States that it could lead to sanctions.

Planes, including F-16 fighter jets, circled the Murted military base in Ankara province to test the newly acquired S-400 system and train Turkish operators, news agency DHA reported.

Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 in July was met with consternation by its Nato allies.

The US argues there is a risk that sensitive technological information could be leaked if it is used alongside Western equipment such as the new F-35 jet.

Turkey has ordered 100 F-35s and its defence industry was part of the supply chain for the new jet, until it was kicked off the programme due to the S-400 purchase.

So far, the US has appeared reluctant to impose threatened sanctions on Turkey over the purchase, with officials saying it could be spared if it does not activate the S-400 system — though this option has been rejected by Turkey.

Ankara’s purchase of the S-400s has been a major factor souring relations with the United States, which says the system is not compatible with Nato defences and poses a threat to Lockheed Martin’s F-35 stealth fighter jets.

The provincial governor’s office announced on Sunday that the Turkish Air Force F-16s and other aircraft will conduct low- and high-altitude flights over Ankara on Monday and Tuesday to test an air defence system project.

Broadcaster CNN Turk and other media said specifically that the flights were to test the S-400 radar system. Ankara began receiving the S-400s last July but they are not yet operational.

Dealers said the reports had a negative impact on the lira, which weakened to 5.7380 against the dollar from a close of 5.7140 on Friday. Tensions in US-Turkish relations played a major role in a near 30 percent slide in the lira’s value last year.

As recently as last Thursday, a senior State Department official told reporters Turkey needed to “get rid of” the system. Those comments came after President Tayyip Erdogan met US President Donald Trump at the White House.

Trump said their talks were “wonderful” but it was unclear if the two Nato allies made any breakthrough on the S-400 issue and Erdogan subsequently said US pressure to get rid of the S-400s was an infringement of sovereign rights.

Washington has suspended Turkey from the F-35 programme, which it was a buyer and producer of, to punish it for the S-400 purchase. It has warned of possible US sanctions over the deal but has not yet imposed them.

Trump has told Erdogan the United States is ready to sell Ankara US Patriot systems if it drops the Russian system.

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2019