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Britain’s Johnson on first Turkey trip since Brexit tensions

Boris Johnson, UK foreign secretary / AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY

Boris Johnson, UK foreign secretary / AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY

Boris Johnson on Monday made his first visit to Turkey as Britain’s foreign minister, months after leading the successful “Brexit” campaign that played on anti-Turkish sentiments.

Johnson, who is of partly Turkish ancestry, began his trip with a visit to a camp for Syrian refugees in the southeast. He is due to head to Ankara on Tuesday for political talks.

The flamboyant former London mayor may find aspects of his visit awkward after he penned the winning entry in a competition on offensive poetry about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, published by the conservative British magazine The Spectator.

The trip is the highest-level visit to Turkey by a British official since the failed coup on July 15 in which a rogue military faction tried to overthrow the Turkish strongman.

“Turkey is a vital partner to the UK,” Johnson wrote on Twitter.

“Pleased to visit for first time as Foreign Sec for talks with Govt, civil society & Syrian Opposition.”

Johnson, one of the most prominent public faces of the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, previously made a strong case for Turkish membership of the bloc.

But the Brexit campaign repeatedly raised the spectre of millions of Turks being free to live in Britain as a reason to pull out of the 28-nation bloc.

David Cameron, who resigned as British prime minister after the Brexit vote, also said during the campaign that Turkish EU membership was not “remotely on the cards” and may not happen until the year 3000, further angering Ankara.

Johnson, never shy of controversy, won the competition calling for a rude verse about Erdogan, organised in solidarity with a German comedian facing prosecution for doing the same.

– Turkish great-grandfather –
Turkish officials have played down a possible setback in the two countries’ relationship, saying British-Turkish ties are too important to be hostage to Johnson’s statements.

Before the Brexit vote, Britain was always seen as one of the strongest supporters of Ankara’s bid for EU membership.

A spokeswoman for the British embassy in Ankara told AFP that Johnson had arrived in Turkey, where he is to meet Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

He is also due to visit the Turkish parliament in the capital Ankara which was extensively damaged by airstrikes on the night of the coup.

Johnson landed in Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey near the Syrian border to visit a refugee camp, the private Dogan news agency reported.

Escorted by a convoy, Johnson first visited a site where UN aid trucks are stationed and then travelled to Nizip refugee camp near the Syrian border, it added.

Turkey, a fierce opponent of President Bashar al-Assad, is playing host to nearly three million Syrian refugees who have fled the war, and pressing for a safe zone on the Syrian side of the border to house refugees.

Johnson has also made headlines in Turkish media because of his Turkish great-grandfather Ali Kemal, who was a politician and a journalist in the early 20th century.

Turkey’s relations with Europe have soured after the coup attempt due to concerns over Ankara’s subsequent crackdown on alleged coup plotters.

Ankara has angrily rejected the criticism that the vast purge might breach rights norms that Ankara must meet for accession into the EU.

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