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US-Turkey: Biden says Erdogan's request for F-16s has to go through process

Leaders hold 'constructive' talks and pledge to improve relations after days of tensions over Osman Kavala
A Turkish F-16 fighter jet flying on the wing of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's plane, while travelling from Ankara to Istanbul, in July 2017 (AFP)

US President Joe Biden on Sunday told Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan his request for F-16 fighter jets has to go through a process in the United States, as both leaders vowed to improve bilateral ties. 

Biden and Erdogan held a 70-minute meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome, days after tensions between Turkey and 10 western countries over jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala eased away from a diplomatic crisis.

A senior US administration official said the talks were constructive and Biden expressed his desire to find "an effective way to manage" disagreements. He also raised the issue of human rights.

The Turkish presidency said "the meeting took place in a positive atmosphere," and the presidents "expressed their joint commitment to further strengthening Turkey-US relations and agreed to establish a joint mechanism to that effect".

A different US administration official said on Saturday that Biden would warn the Turkish leader that any "precipitous" actions would not benefit US-Turkish relations and that crises should be avoided after Erdogan threatened to throw out the US ambassador to Turkey and other foreign envoys for seeking the release of Kavala.

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Erdogan later withdrew his threat to expel the envoys after their embassies in Turkey said they would abide by a diplomatic convention not to interfere in the host country's internal affairs.

F-16 fighter jets

Ties between Ankara and Washington have come under strain in recent years over Turkey's 2019 purchase of a Russian S-400 air defence system that has prompted Washington to block Ankara's plans to buy about 100 next-generation US F-35 planes.

Erdogan has insisted on compensation, saying Washington could pay back at least part of the $1.4bn advance payment Turkey made for the F-35s through the delivery of older-generation F-16 fighter jets. 

"President Biden reaffirmed our defense partnership and Turkey's importance as a NATO Ally, but noted U.S. concerns over Turkey's possession of the Russian S-400 missile system," the White House said in a statement after the meeting.

The leaders discussed Turkey's request to purchase F-16 fighter jets, which US lawmakers have opposed on the grounds of Turkey’s purchase of the Russian missile defence systems.

"The [US] president took on board his... desire to have them but made very clear that there is a process that we have to go through in the US and committed to continuing to... work through that process," the senior administration official said.

The State Department said early last week that it has not made any financing offers to Turkey for the deal and has yet to make any formal or informal notifications to Congress concerning the sale.

In recent weeks Erdogan has sought to build up the potential meeting with Biden as a way for the two leaders to hammer out differences over the sale.