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Erdogan, Putin launch new gas line, vow Mideast diplomacy

ISTANBUL (AP) — The presidents of Turkey and Russia inaugurated the dual natural gas line connecting their countries Wednesday, opening up a new export path for Russian gas into Turkey and Europe and promising cooperation in trade and diplomacy.

The meeting in Istanbul between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia's Vladimir Putin came amid deteriorating security in the Mideast, with U.S.-Iranian tensions high since the American killing of a top Iranian commander last week. In a joint statement, they vowed to work for de-escalation.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, Putin hailed the TurkStream gas pipeline as a symbol of fruitful cooperation between Russia and Turkey and a “unique, unprecedented system for transporting gas” that would benefit all of Europe.

With TurkStream, Russian gas passes through the Black Sea to Turkey. Together, the two 930-kilometer (578-mile) lines under the Black Sea, along with the Russian and Turkish onshore pipes, have the capacity to carry 31.5 billion cubic meters (1.1 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas annually.

Russia is the top gas supplier to Turkey, which relies on imports for its energy needs. TurkStream allows Russia to bypass Ukraine by opening up a new direct transport line to Turkey, in addition to the Blue Stream line also under the Black Sea further east. The simmering conflict between Moscow and Kyiv has prompted Russia to seek alternative gas routes to Europe.

From Turkey, Russian gas will reach southern and southeastern Europe through new and existing lines. Turkstream has already begun transporting gas but the two leaders turned a symbolic valve in the ceremony.

Erdogan said the “historic” project was a key example of Turkey and Russia’s “win-win cooperation” and a basis for future projects. The opening of the TurkStream pipeline comes amid tensions over another ambitious Russian project, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is supposed to allow Russia to transport natural gas directly to Europe, again bypassing Ukraine. Late last year, construction of Nord Stream from Russia to Germany was halted after U.S. President Donald Trump signed off on sanctions against individuals and companies involved with it. Immediately after that, a Swiss company laying the pipeline suspended work on it.

Turkey is also part of a race to explore oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean, where it fears being excluded from resources around the ethnically split island of Cyprus. A maritime deal it signed with the Tripoli-government in Libya heightened tensions in the region over exploratory and drilling rights.

In the ceremony Wednesday, Erdogan also vowed to work diplomatically to calm soaring tensions between Washington and Tehran. “No one has the right to throw the region, especially Iraq, into a new ring of fire for their personal gains,” he said.

Iran targeted with missiles Iraqi bases where American troops are stationed in retaliation for Friday’s American drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The escalation risks open conflict between the two rivals.

“We will be in constant dialogue and consultation with the Russian Federation and my dear friend Mr. Putin. God willing, with help of our Russian friends support and contributions, I believe we will overcome this troubled phase,” Erdogan said.

Erdogan and Putin talk and meet often, cooperating on trade, energy and defense industries. Their close partnership is a dramatic reversal from 2015, when diplomatic relations hit rock bottom with Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet along the border with Syria. Their increased cooperation has worried Turkey’s NATO allies, especially with Moscow’s delivery of a Russian-made missile defense system to a base near Ankara over the summer.

In a closed-door meeting before the ceremony, the two leaders also discussed Syria and Libya. Putin is in Turkey following a visit to Damascus where he met Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has re-established control in much of Syria with Russian and Iranian backing. Turkey, in contrast, has supported the rebels opposing Assad and has carved out zones of control in Syria’s north.

The Syrian government’s all-out offensive to retake rebel-held Idlib has pushed hundreds of thousands of civilians towards the closed Turkish border, risking a major new refugee flow into Turkey. “We underscore the necessity to establish calm in the Idlib de-escalation area by fully implementing all agreements on Idlib," the two leaders said in a joint written statement.

The two leaders also called for a Jan. 12 cease-fire in war-torn Libya even though they backed different sides in the North African nation. Turkey is supporting the embattled U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli and has begun sending Turkish soldiers into Libya for training and coordination, while Russia has backed the rival eastern-based forces of Gen. Khalifa Hifter.

Their statement also expressed support for dialogue in Libya. “Unfortunately, the situation in the region we are at tends to escalate. But Turkey and Russia are demonstrating different examples – examples of cooperation for the sake of our nations and all of Europe,” Putin said at the ceremony.

Daria Litvinova contributed from Moscow.

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