Ankara, 25 March 1999 (RFE/RL) - NATO-member Turkey today expressed full support for the alliance's air strikes on Yugoslavia, saying they are the only way to prevent a repetition of the mass killings and displacement of people that occurred previously in Bosnia (1992-95).
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Sermet Atancali told RFE/RL in Ankara that Turkey is particularly sensitive about developments in the Balkans, an area which for centuries was part of Turkey's Ottoman Empire. He notes Turkey continues to maintain ethnic, religious and cultural ties with the region.
"There are quite a number of people in Turkey who are of Balkan origin, be it Kosovo, Macedonia or Bosnia and so forth. Since the very beginning we felt that we should do whatever we could do to contribute to a peaceful solution in Kosovo and not to see what we saw in Bosnia."
Atancali says the "well-being" of Kosovo's ethnic-Turkish minority -- numbering some 60,000 -- is of "fundamental concern" to the Turkish government.
Atancali disagrees with the opinions of senior western diplomats in Ankara, who say Turkey failed to make any significant contribution to the negotiating process aimed at finding a political solution to the Kosovo crisis.
Atancali says his country has been very active in international organizations -- including the OSCE, NATO and the Southeastern European Initiative -- in searching for a solution and has always supported talks between Belgrade and the Kosovar Albanians. Reflecting NATO policy, he says the crisis should be resolved while respecting the territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and by restoring Kosovo's autonomy. He says that autonomy should safeguard the rights of all the nationalities living there.
"Unfortunately, these efforts did not reach the desired result and we came to a point where the air strikes became necessary. Of course, being a NATO member, we took part in all the stages of planning, preparation and decision-making in NATO, so we regret that the developments brought us to this point. But unfortunately, it was inevitable, and at this point all we can hope is that this would not last long and that the government in Belgrade would realize that they should make substantial changes in their attitude towards the whole issue."
Atancali says Turkey expects the crisis to be contained and not to spread, despite what he terms "the unique ethnic structure of the whole region" -- a reference to the presence of largely Muslim ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, Montenegro and southern Serbia. Fears are expressed in the region that these ethnic Albanians might at some point seek to unite with Albanians from Albania and Kosovo in a Greater Albania -- something Atancali says would likely result in an unimaginable escalation of the fighting. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said last night it is not yet clear what role Turkey will play in the NATO operation against Yugoslavia. In his words, "whether Turkey will assume an active, supervisory or defensive role will be clarified in time."
Turkish newspapers today quote Air Force Commander Ilhan Kilic as confirming that Turkey has 11 F-16 aircraft under NATO command at NATO bases in Italy. Defense Minister Hikmet Turk says Turkey has supplied one warship to the NATO fleet in the Adriatic, and he says the Turkish army is currently preparing a battalion for a possible ground operation in Kosovo.