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Erdogan calls Saudi executions an 'internal matter' as regional row spreads

Turkish president refuses to condemn executions and questions why the world failed to react when thousands were killed in Egypt
Saudi Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Riyadh last year (AFP)

Turkey's president has said the execution of a Shia cleric and 46 other people in Saudi Arabia was an "internal legal matter", in his first comments on a row that threatens to further destabilise the region.

In his first comments on the regional dispute, Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed suggestions that the execution of Shiekh Nimr al-Nimr at the weekend was aimed at provoking tensions with Shia Muslims. 

"Only three [of those executed] were Shia," said Erdogan, who questioned why the world did not react when thousands of people died following the removal of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. The majority of the executed prisoners were convicted of al-Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia.

"Whether you approve or not of the decision is a separate issue," he added, and said an atttack on a Saudi mission in Iran by protesters angered at al-Nimr's execution was "unacceptable".

Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim powers, share the same vision over the conflict in Syria where they believe the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad can bring an end to almost five years of civil war.

Erdogan's comments contrasted with those on Monday by Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus, that "death penalties, especially ones that are politically-motivated, are of no help to making peace in the region".

Iran on Wednesday meanwhile said it had removed all of its diplomatic staff from Saudi Arabia, the latest development in an ongoing diplomatic row over the execution.

On Sunday, Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Tehran, the day after its embassy and consulate were set on fire in Iran.

Bahrain and Sudan have also cut ties, the UAE has downgraded its diplomatic presence in Tehran, while Kuwait removed its ambassador. Djibouti on Wednesday also said it had cut ties with Iran.

Iranian officials condemned Nimr's killing, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Saudi would face "divine revenge". He however denounced the burning and looting of the the Saudi mission.