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Erdogan: Turkish Warships Will Escort Aid Vessels to Gaza

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan walks before a ceremony outside his office in Ankara, Turkey, Sept. 8, 2011.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan walks before a ceremony outside his office in Ankara, Turkey, Sept. 8, 2011.

Turkey says warships will accompany any of its vessels carrying humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip to protect them from Israeli interference.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told al-Jazeera television Thursday that Turkey will continue its attempts to deliver aid to Gaza, but will not allow a repeat of last year's Israeli raid on the Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship Mavi Marmara, which left nine people dead.

Erdogan said Turkey has taken steps to patrol the eastern Mediterranean, vowing to stop Israel from "unilaterally exploiting" natural resources in the area.

In an interview with Israel's Army Radio on Friday, Israeli Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor dismissed Erdogan's remarks as a "grave and serious" aggravation, but declined to comment further, saying he hopes the situation "will pass."

Turkey downgraded diplomatic ties with Israel this week. It expelled the Israeli ambassador and other senior diplomats from Ankara, as well as suspended military trade and cooperation with its former ally.

A Turkish ruling party official, Huseyin Celik, said relations can return to "old days" under certain conditions, reiterating Turkey's demand for an Israeli apology for the Mavi Marmara raid. He also demanded the payment of compensation to the families of the Turkish activists killed in the incident.

Earlier Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he believes the rift "will pass," saying Turkey is "not an enemy" of Israel. But he again insisted that Israel would not apologize for the raid.

U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone said Washington wants the two nations to keep diplomatic channels open and normalize relations as soon as possible.

Turkey's main opposition party (CHP) has criticized the government's handling of the crisis, saying it should not have allowed such a drastic deterioration in its relationship with Israel.

The dispute began in May 2010, when Israeli commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara. The ship was carrying humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip in defiance of an Israeli blockade aimed at preventing weapons from reaching militants. A confrontation on the vessel led to the killings of nine Turkish activists and the wounding of several Israeli soldiers.

A U.N. report published last week argued that Israel's naval blockade was a legitimate security measure, but said that Israel used "excessive and unreasonable" force in the incident. The report also accused the flotilla organizers of acting "recklessly" by challenging the blockade.

Israel has accepted the U.N. report with some reservations, while Turkey has rejected its key findings.

On Thursday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the report "credible," and urged the two nations to resolve their differences so they can continue working together on shared issues facing the region.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP.