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Blinken to meet Turkish, Greek leaders as Gaza diplomacy tour begins

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was expected to meet the leaders of Turkey and Greece on Saturday at the start of a week-long trip aimed at tamping down tensions that have spiked across the Middle East since Israel's war with Hamas began in October.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, at Vahdettin, a private residence of the Presidency, in Istanbul, January 6, 2024. Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was expected to meet the leaders of Turkey and Greece on Saturday at the start of a week-long trip aimed at tamping down tensions that have spiked across the Middle East since Israel's war with Hamas began in October.

The Biden administration's top diplomat kicked off his talks by meeting Turkey's Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan in Istanbul and was also scheduled later to meet President Tayyip Erdogan, a strong critic of Israel's military actions in Gaza.

The talks in Turkey are also expected to cover Turkey's process to ratify Sweden's membership of NATO, according to a senior State Department official traveling with Blinken.

U.S. officials have been frustrated by the lengthy process but are now confident that Ankara will soon approve Sweden's accession to the alliance after the Turkish parliament's foreign affairs commission backed the bid last month, said the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. lawmakers have held up the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey until it signs off on the addition of Sweden to the alliance. Sweden, which along with Finland, applied to join NATO following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, would become the alliance's 32nd member. Finland joined last year.

Blinken will later travel to the island of Crete to meet Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Fellow NATO member Greece is awaiting the approval by the U.S. Congress of a sale of F-35 fighter jets.

Blinken will continue in the coming days to Arab states, Israel and the occupied West Bank, where he will deliver a message that Washington does not want a regional escalation of the Gaza conflict.

Blinken also hopes to make progress in talks on how Gaza could be governed if and when Israel achieves its aim of eradicating Hamas.

Washington wants regional countries, including Turkey, to play a role in reconstruction, governance and potentially security in the Gaza Strip, which has been run by Hamas since 2007, the official said.

Reporting by Simon Lewis; Editing by Gareth Jones

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