Turkey, Israel On Track To Close Drone Deal, Says Official

ANKARA (AFP)–Turkey and Israel appear to be on track to finalize a long delayed multimillion-dollar deal for the delivery of 10 drone aircraft for the Turkish air force, a Turkish official said Friday.

The project, launched in 2005, was under threat of cancellation amid delays and rising tensions between the two countries over Israel’s devastating offensive in the Gaza Strip last year.

“Turkish experts are currently in Israel to test the drones,” the defense ministry official told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity.

Should the systems pass the tests, six aircraft will be brought to Turkey’s southeastern province of Batman, on the border with Iraq, for further tests, the official added.

“If there are no problems, we will take the drones. We expect the delivery to take place in the first six months of this year,” he said.

The announcement came ahead of a visit by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Turkey on Sunday for talks on mending battered ties following the latest diplomatic row.

On Wednesday, Israel was forced to apologize after Ankara threatened to withdraw its ambassador over Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s public dressing down of the envoy.

The drone project had been expected to be completed in the second half of 2009, but it was delayed by technical problems, forcing Turkey to give the two contractors – Israel Aerospace Industries and Elbit – a deadline until early 2010 and threaten to cancel the tender.

Last week, Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul said that negotiations were under way on the compensation the Israeli companies would pay for the delay, but refused to give a figure.

The drone contract was part of a $185 million project that involved the manufacture of 10 aircraft, surveillance equipment and ground control stations, with Turkish firms providing sub-systems and services.

Under a 1996 military cooperation deal, Turkish-Israeli ties have flourished greatly until last year when the two countries fell out about Ankara’s almost daily criticism of Israel over the Gaza war.

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