30 Jan 2009

Turkish PM returns to hero's welcome after Gaza row

7:52 pm on 30 January 2009

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan received a hero's welcome on his return to Istanbul on Friday after he stormed out of a heated debate on Israel's Gaza offensive at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Thousands of people gathered at Istanbul's Ataturk airport to greet Mr Erdogan when he returned, waving Turkish and Palestinian flags and chanting his name.

After a fiery exchange with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Mr Erdogan said he might never return to the annual gathering of the rich and powerful in the Swiss resort.

During a debate on the Middle East, Mr Peres had launched a passionate defence of his country's assault on the Palestinian-held Gaza over the past month and, with a raised voice and pointed finger, questioned what Mr Erdogan would do if rockets were fired at Istanbul every night.

"I don't think I will come back to Davos because you don't let me speak," said the Turkish prime minister, who complained of not getting time to reply.

He stood up and walked out of the conference hall.

Mr Peres had asked Mr Erdogan directly: "What would you do if you were to have in Istanbul every night a hundred rockets?"

The visibly angry Turkish leader had responded strongly to Mr Peres's repeated question to the panel of what they would do in Israel's position.

"President Peres you are older than I am. Maybe you are feeling guilty and that is why you are so strong in your words. You killed people. I remember the children who died on beaches," he said.

Peres apologises - report

Turkey's state-run Anatolian news agency, quoting unnamed diplomatic sources, said Mr Peres told Mr Erdogan late on Thursday that he was sorry about what had happened in Davos.

"I am very sorry for what happened and friends could sometimes have an argument between themselves.

"I have always had a great respect for the Republic of Turkey and you as the prime minister. I consider myself as a friend of Turkey and Premier Erdogan," Mr Peres told Erdogan during a telephone conversation, Anatolian reported.

Muslim Turkey, which has close ties with Israel and the Arab world, has harshly criticised Israel over its Gaza operation, in which more than 1,300 people were killed during the three-week Israeli campaign.

Mr Erdogan's rhetoric has shocked Israel, and has been interpreted by some as an attempt to shore up support ahead of local elections in March with an electorate deeply sympathetic to Palestinians.