Russia’s Putin in Turkey for Syria talks

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Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Istanbul today for a landmark visit due to focus on resolving differences with Turkey over the 20-month crisis in war-ravaged Syria, AFP has reported.

Putin landed at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport and was due to head straight into a meeting with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Russian strongman was originally due to travel to Turkey in early October, but the visit was postponed because of tensions over Syria and amid speculation about Putin’s health.

Turkey, once an ally of the Damascus regime, has become one of its fiercest critics over the crackdown that has killed more than 40,000 people, according to monitoring groups.

But Moscow remains one of the few allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, routinely blocking resolutions against his regime in the UN Security Council.

The tensions came to a head in October when Turkey intercepted a Syrian plane en route from Moscow to Damascus on suspicion that it had military cargo, drawing an angry response from Russia. Russia also objects to Turkey’s request to NATO for the deployment of Patriot missiles near its volatile border with Syria. It has warned that such a move could spark a broader conflict that would draw in the western military alliance.

But Turkey insists the US-made Patriots would be used for purely defensive purposes, and NATO’s response is expected this week.

In Istanbul on Monday, Putin and Erdogan will co-chair a high-level cooperation council meeting, a mechanism established between the two countries to foster ties. Putin is also due to speak by telephone with Turkish President Abdullah Gul.

Monday’s trip marks Putin’s first outside Russia since he visited Tajikistan on October 5 and follows speculation that the normally globe-trotting leader is having health problems.

Russian media reports have said Putin is suffering from a back injury, caused possibly by a bad fall while playing his favourite sport judo or falling off his horse.

His aides admitted Putin was suffering from a light sports injury when he was spotted limping at an Asian summit in September, but have denied ever since that this had had any impact on his schedule.

Putin’s absence from long distance travel has also dented his strongman image.

“I ask you not to be concerned. Not to worry. Everything is fine with his health,” Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov said on Friday, quoted by Russian news agencies.

“He had a minor sports injury,” Ivanov. “No one is immune from sports injuries.” Despite their divergences on some issues, Russia and Turkey enjoy growing trade and energy links.

Turkey depends on Russia for most of its natural gas and oil supplies. In 2010, Ankara struck a deal with Moscow to build the country’s first nuclear power plant at Akkuyu in the southern Mersin province.

After the Istanbul meeting, both countries are expected to sign a number of agreements including a memorandum of understanding in the sphere of banking and finance.

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