Erdogan hits back at Russia over Syria
ANKARA - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday slammed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's comments that the Syrian town of Afrin, seized from Kurdish militia by Ankara, should be handed over to Damascus.
"This is a very wrong approach," Erdogan was quoted as saying by the official Anadolu news agency.
"We know very well to whom we will give Afrin," he said. "We will give Afrin back to its inhabitants when the time comes but we will determine the time, not Mr Lavrov."
The comments were among the toughest yet by Erdogan against Moscow since Turkey and Russia formed a fragile alliance aimed at bringing peace to Syria, a long-time ally of Moscow.
Turkey in January launched an operation into Syria to root out the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia in the Afrin enclave and drove the group from the city on March 18.
Many analysts said at the time the Turkish offensive could not have gone ahead without consulting Russia because it required the Turkish air force to enter Syrian airspace.
Russian air support for Damascus has been a keen factor in driving back rebel forces.
At a press conference on Monday, Lavrov said the simplest way to normalise the situation in Afrin would be for the territory to be "returned to the control of the Syrian government."
He noted that Erdogan believed that the United States had started to "flirt" with Kurdish militia was a threat to Turkey's interests. But he added: "Erdogan never said Turkey wanted to occupy Afrin."
In a further source of tension, Erdogan on Monday expressed concern to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over attacks in Eastern Ghouta after an alleged chemical attack there killed dozens of people.
Erdogan vowed those behind the killings of civilians in the Syrian rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta would pay a "heavy price".
"I curse those who carried out this massacre. Whoever has done this, the perpetrators will be brought to account and certainly pay a heavy price," Erdogan told a meeting of his party in parliament.
The Turkish foreign ministry at the weekend said there was a "strong suspicion" that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime was responsible for the attack.
But Erdogan on Tuesday steered clear of criticising Assad, only noting his telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin who is the chief ally of the Damascus regime along with Iran.
"I spoke with Putin yesterday (Monday), talks will continue today and tomorrow," he said.
Rescue workers said dozens of civilians had been killed in a chlorine gas attack on Douma -- claims denied by Assad's regime and its ally Russia.
Ankara and Moscow have been on the two opposing sides of the war in Syria but despite their differences, both countries have worked closely in recent months for a political solution in Syria.
Erdogan last week hosted Putin and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, another ally of the Syrian regime. The three presidents vowed to work for a lasting ceasefire in Syria.