British PM urges Turkey to 'sustain' its democracy

Pair also discussed war in Syria, efforts to reunify Cyprus

ANKARA - British Prime Minister Theresa May on Saturday promised to ramp up trade between Turkey and Britain ahead of Brexit, while urging Ankara to uphold human rights as it presses a relentless crackdown following the failed coup.
On her first visit to Turkey as premier and fresh from meeting new US President Donald Trump at the White House, May held three hours of talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and then met Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in Ankara.
May sought to strike a delicate balance between showing Britain's keen interest in expanding trade with Turkey following the June vote to leave the European Union, while echoing European alarm over the scale of the crackdown after the July 15 attempted coup.
May announced the creation of a joint group to boost trade to over $20 billion and above ahead of Britain's departure from the EU, and also oversaw the signing of a deal for Britain's BAE Systems to develop a new Turkish fighter jet.
May said after meeting Erdogan at his palace she was "proud" Britain had stood with Turkey's democratically-elected government when the coup struck.
But she added: "Now it is important that Turkey sustains that democracy by maintaining the rule of law and upholding its international human rights obligations, as the government has undertaken to do."
She confirmed she had brought up human rights directly with Erdogan in their talks.
Around 43,000 people are under arrest on charges of links to the coup bid, which Ankara blames on the US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen. He denies the charges.
May's visit is also seen as the first to Ankara by a major Western leader since the attempted putsch, although then US vice president Joe Biden held talks with Erdogan in August.
May stressed that Turkey was one of Britain's "oldest friends" with relations going back over 400 years, referring to the establishment of relations between the Ottoman Empire and England under Elizabeth I.
- 'Post-Brexit trading relationship' -
Erdogan said the two sides were targeting increasing annual trade from over $15 billion to $20 billion.
May said Britain and Turkey have agreed to set up a working group to "prepare the ground for our post-Brexit trading relationship" after Britain leaves the European Union.
"We both want to build on our existing links and I believe that doing so will be to the benefit of both of our countries and for the prosperity of both our nations," she said.
Yildirim said the two sides would also now target a free trade deal.
Under their non-binding agreement, BAE Systems and state-owned Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) will establish a partnership for the development of the TF-X fighter jet.
May said it indicated that "Britain is a great, global, trading nation and that we are open for business", after the Brexit vote.
She added that "it marks the start of a new and deeper trading relationship with Turkey."
The initial pre-design phase is worth over 100 million pounds (117 million euros), Downing Street said.
But the agreement can pave the way for further deals potentially worth billions of pounds over a 20-year lifespan, May's spokeswoman told reporters.
- 'Unsavoury rulers' -
A day after visiting the White House, May declined to condemn Trump's hugely controversial ban on refugees as well as travellers from some Muslim countries.
Yildirim, by contrast, said "putting up walls" would not solve the world's refugee problems.
Back in the UK, some MPs have urged May not to let her focus on trade overshadow human rights concerns over the crackdown in Turkey.
"The Conservative Brexit government is so desperate for trade deals with anyone but the mature democracies of the European Union that even the most unsavoury rulers are to be subjected to the prime ministerial charm," opposition Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Olney wrote in the Guardian newspaper.
Erdogan and May also discussed the battle against jihadists in Syria and efforts to reunify Cyprus, where both Ankara and London are guarantor powers, as well as aviation security.
"Turkey sits on the frontline of some of the most difficult challenges we face," said May, adding the relationship is essential to help Britain tackle the terror threat.