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Obama Urges Turkey To Speed Up EU Reforms

Turkish President Abdullah Gul (right) with his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama in Ankara
ANKARA (Reuters) -- U.S. President Barack Obama has reiterated his support for Turkey's bid to join the European Union despite opposition from member states, but urged the mainly Muslim country to speed up long-stalled reforms.

His words, in a speech before parliament in Ankara, come a day after he urged the 27-nation bloc to accept EU candidate Turkey, in remarks rejected by France and met coolly by Germany.

"The United States strongly supports Turkey's bid to become a member of the European Union...[but] Turkey has its own responsibilities," Obama told the audience, which included Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

He praised Turkey for abolishing military courts and making progress on freedom of expression and minority rights for ethnic Kurds, but said Turkey should press on with reforms.

"These achievements have created new laws that must be implemented, and a momentum that should be sustained," he said.

"Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state."

Turkish entry talks with the EU, which began in 2005, have been held up by European concerns over human rights, a perceived lack of progress on reforms, and by a long dispute over the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

Cyprus, a European Union member since 2004, has been divided between its Greek and Turkish Cypriots since a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup.

Successive U.S. administrations have seen EU membership for Turkey as a way of further binding to the West a NATO member positioned strategically as a key energy hub between Europe and energy resources in the Caspian Sea and beyond.

Obama said the United States was willing to help the two communities in Cyprus reach a final settlement. The two sides started reunification talks in September 2008, but there has been little progress.

"The United States is willing to offer all the help sought by the parties as they work toward a just and lasting settlement that reunifies Cyprus into a bizonal and bicommunal federation," Obama said.

Erdogan, whose Islamist-rooted AK party government launched EU accession talks, has pledged several times to speed up reforms but Brussels wants him to put deeds to his words.

Erdogan has said he wants to reform Turkey's 1982 military-inspired constitution, which would removed obstacles toward EU membership.