By Ece Toksabay and Dmitry Solovyov
ANKARA/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Turkey said on Monday it wanted to cooperate with Moscow in combating Islamic State in Syria but denied having suggested it might allow Russia to use its Incirlik Air Base, near the Syrian frontier.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan last week expressed regret over last year’s shooting down of a Russian warplane, with the loss of the pilot. Moscow, which had broken off virtually all economic ties and banned tourists from visiting Turkish resorts, pledged in return to help rebuild relations.
In an interview with Turkish state television on Sunday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had appeared to suggest Ankara could open up Incirlik to Russia, a move that could raise concern among Turkey’s NATO partners already using the base, including the United States.
But Cavusoglu, in comments broadcast live on television on Monday, denied such an interpretation of his words.
“We said that we could cooperate with Russia in the period ahead in the fight against Daesh (Islamic State)…I did not make any comment referring to Russian planes coming to the Incirlik Air Base.”
Incirlik hosts aircraft from the United States, Germany, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar involved in the U.S.-led air campaign against Islamic State, which has controlled extensive territories along Syria’s border with Turkey.
“We will cooperate with everyone who fights Daesh,” he told TRT Haber in Sunday’s remarks. “We have been doing this for quite a while, and we opened Incirlik Air Base for those who want to join the active fight against Daesh.
“Why not cooperate with Russia as well on these terms? Daesh is our common enemy, and we need to fight this enemy.”
The Kremlin described the notion that Turkey could open up Incirlik as a “serious statement” although it said it had not had any contact with Ankara on the matter.
Russia said it was looking to “revive” the sharing of information with Turkey in the fight against Islamic State.
“Channels to exchange information with Turkey have not been working lately. We now have to revive and relaunch them,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Last week’s bomb attack on the main airport Istanbul – which left 45 people dead and hundreds wounded – showed the importance of working together to counter terrorism, he said.
Russian nationals have been identified as two of the three suspected Islamic States suicide bombers behind the airport attack, which is thought to have been masterminded by a Chechen, Turkish media said on Friday.
The pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper has said the organizer of the attack, the deadliest in a series of suicide bombings in NATO-member Turkey this year, was suspected to be a Chechen double-amputee called Akhmed Chatayev.
Chatayev is identified on a United Nations sanctions list as a leader in Islamic State responsible for training Russian-speaking militants.
In many cases these fighters have been influenced by Islamist insurgencies at home, pushed out of their own countries by security crackdowns, and won advancement in Islamic State through their military skills and ruthlessness.
(Additional reporting by Daren Butler; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Ralph Boulton)