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The numbing predictability of the Istanbul tragedy

| blog, Islamic State, L&B World, Turkey, unrest | January 18, 2016

Istanbul's Blue Mosque two days after the attacks. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

(AFP/Ozan Kose)

"It’s conventional after attacks to express surprise and shock," writes Stuart Williams, AFP's Istanbul-based deputy bureau chief in Turkey.

"But when a suicide bomber ripped through a group of German tourists on a morning last week in central Istanbul the shock was genuine, but no-one could feign surprise. This was the attack that everyone had feared."

By Stuart Williams

Istanbul's Blue Mosque two days after the attacks. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

Istanbul's Blue Mosque two days after the attacks. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

Istanbul, Jan 18, 2016 -- It’s conventional after attacks to express surprise and shock. But when a suicide bomber ripped through a group of German tourists on Tuesday morning last week in central Istanbul the shock was genuine, but no-one could feign surprise. This was the attack that everyone had feared.

Attacks blamed on Islamic State (IS) jihadists had struck Turkey three times in 2015 -- once in Diyarbakir, once in the town of Suruc on the Syrian border, and then in Ankara where 103 people were killed in modern Turkey’s bloodiest ever attack.

Victims of the Ankara bombing on October 10, 2015. (AFP/Fatih Pinar)

Victims of the Ankara bombing on October 10, 2015. (AFP/Fatih Pinar)

An expected strike

It would only be a matter of time, we thought to ourselves, until terror struck in the heart of the milllenia-old, messy, overcrowded, cosmopolitan and enchanting metropolis that is Istanbul, possibly targeting one of the busiest tourist areas.

And this is what happened when Nabil Fadli, a 28-year old Syrian reportedly born in Saudi Arabia, detonated his charge on January 12 at 10:20 in the morning, just a few yards away from the iconic Ottoman-era Blue Mosque in the Sultanahmet Square, the tourist hub of the city.

A Turkish riot police officer stands guard two days after the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

A Turkish riot police officer stands guard two days after the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

Sometimes at night I look out over the lights on Istanbul’s fabled skyline and wonder what is lying beneath this glittering beauty. We have long been aware of the existence of jihadist sleeper cells in Turkey comprising extremists who have spent time, gained bomb-making knowledge and been radicalised in Syria.

It was a question of where, when and how they would act. The city has been on edge for months, but particularly after the Ankara attacks. Walking in especially crowded areas, like Taksim Square or the packed Iskitlal Street, you feel constantly on alert. The Turkish authorities unquestionably have stepped up efforts in the last weeks to crack down on these cells, detaining hundreds of suspected jihadists.

The bomber exploded his charge right next to one of the most extraordinary sights in the entire city, the Obelisk of Theodosius. It’s a large column of stone commissioned by the pharaohs in the second millenium BC which was then shipped to the city by Roman Emperor Theodosius in the late fourth century AD. A magnificently sculpted base was added glorifying his own achievements, including the erection of the column.

The Obelisk of Theodosius at the site of the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

The Obelisk of Theodosius at the site of the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

Normality returns, fear remains

Many times I had visited the column, to wonder at the hands that touched these stones, which have survived as generation after generation passed away and empires rose and fell. Probably the German tourists were thinking much the same when the horror struck.

The reaction of many in the city after the bombing, so early in the new year, was a numb fear: when will this happen again?

For now, no doubt encouraged by the municipal authorities, a semblance of normality has returned to the area. There are moving messages on the railings of the monument, which has been festooned with red carnations and adorned, most touchingly, by several football scarves of the popular German Bundesliga side. Guides can be heard rattling off the history of the monument, tourists hesitatingly take photographs, wondering if the site of the blast truly makes an appropriate holiday snap.

A makeshift memorial to the victims of the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

A makeshift memorial to the victims of the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

I believe the Turkish authorities were genuinely horrified by the attack and worried for its consequences, notably for the tourism industry. To their credit, the magnitude of the death toll and the nature of the blast was rapidly made clear in official statements. Strangely, it took some time however to make clear that all the dead were Germans, as if the fact that tourists from one single, key partner nation had been targeted (by design or accident) was just too much to take in at once.

Emergency personnel at the scene of the attack. (AFP/stringer)

Emergency personnel at the scene of the attack. (AFP/stringer)

Far less welcome was the news, hours after the bombing, that the authorities had slapped a so-called “broadcast ban” on coverage of the event. For an hour or so, this seemed to halt all live broadcasting from the scene. I saw one channel, its news ticker screaming red with the death toll, but showing pictures of a feature about scuba diving.

But in Turkey, the lines are never crystal clear. By their 1:00 pm news bulletins, all channels, including pro-government ones, appeared to have shaken off the absurdity of the broadcast ban and were broadcasting live from the scene.

Police stand guard at the site of the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

Police stand guard at the site of the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

Authorities keep focus on PKK

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted swiftly to the news of the bombing, using a speech to Turkish ambassadors in Ankara to condemn it in unequivocal terms and confirm the bomber was of Syrian origin. But surprisingly, Erdogan did not dwell on the issue, spending much more time in a long and sometimes rambling address talking about Turkey’s fight against Kurdish militants.

Turkey’s offensive against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched in July is hugely controversial, with rights groups saying dozens of civilians have been killed, in particular in a succession of curfew operations since December which have seen three areas placed under a military lockdown to flush out the militants.

A funeral procession on January 12 for those killed during curfews in Turkey's restive southeast. (AFP/stringer)

A funeral procession on January 12 for those killed during curfews in Turkey's restive southeast. (AFP/stringer)

In typically combative form, the president then went on to take aim at over 1,000 Turkish academics and dozens of foreign professors (including the American linguist Noam Chomsky) who had signed a petition condemning a military crackdown in the Kurdish-dominated southeast. Refusing to let go of the issue, Erdogan launched a new attack against the academics on Thursday. By Friday several had been arrested as part of an investigation into alleged propaganda for a terror group.

The police have already made seven arrests over the Sultanahmet attack but the focus on a written petition seems a strange balance at a time when there is a such a concrete threat from extremists. The authorities have always made clear they make no distinction between IS and the PKK, which was blamed for a blood-curdling attack in the southeast overnight Wednesday to Thursday that killed six people, including three children.

Rescuers search through wreckage after a blast killed six in southeastern Turkey on January 14. (AFP/Ilyas Akengin)

Rescuers search through wreckage after a blast killed six in southeastern Turkey on January 14. (AFP/Ilyas Akengin)

In the meantime, fear and alarm will stalk the streets of Istanbul and many other Turkish cities. It has been noted repeatedly that IS has never claimed an attack in Turkey, in contrast to its usual brazen boasting about strikes elsewhere. We don’t understand how the group operates inside Turkey and what its specific objectives are. But Istanbul’s residents, and its visitors, many of whom fall so in love with the place they come time-and-time again, will be determined to continue as normal in the fact of this uncertainty.

Stuart Williams is AFP’s deputy bureau chief in Turkey, based in Istanbul. Follow him on Twitter.

A headline in German reads 'We mourn" in a Turkish newspaper the day after the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

A headline in German reads 'We mourn" in a Turkish newspaper the day after the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

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Two injured in Turkey after huge chunks of snow hit pedestrians

| blog, L&B World, Turkey, World | January 5, 2016

Two people in Turkey have been injured after large chunks of snow fell off a roof and hit pedestrians walking below.

In footage from Rize, a coastal city in the north-east, a large volume of snow that had accumulated on the roof of a mosque suddenly crashes off, flattening two people and forcing others to dive out of the way.

The CCTV footage shows pedestrians rushing to free those buried under the snow.

Two women were taken to hospital for treatment.

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Charities have made an enormous peace sign out of life jackets on the island of Lesbos

| blog, Greece, L&B World, Turkey, World | January 4, 2016

MOLIVOS, GREECE - JANUARY 01: MSF and Greenpeace set up a giant peace symbol made of life vests used by migrants in Lesbos on January 1, 2016 near Molivos, Greece. Lesbos, the Greek vacation island in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece, faces massive refugee flows from the Middle East countries. (Photo by Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images)
Thousands of refugees have died attempting to reach Europe (Picture; Getty Images)

Charities on the Greek island of Lesbos have made an enormous peace sign out of life jackets in honour of the thousands of refugees and migrants who lost their lives attempting to reach Europe across the Mediterranean Sea.

Since the start of 2015, more than… Read the full story

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It’s snowing very, very hard in Turkey

| blog, L&B World, Turkey, World | January 2, 2016

(Picture: Getty Images)
(Picture: Getty Images)

It might be a mild winter in the UK, but it’s snowing hard in Turkey.

In Hakkari, residents are trying (and often failing) to clear snow off the road and off their cars.

Airline passengers are facing lengthy delays and cancellations and there have been a number of road closures.

Snow storms and extreme weather continue across the city, where temperatures have plunged as low as -16C.

In Instanbul, at least one person has died in an accident related to snow on the roads, and several others have been injured.

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The 15 most-read stories in 2015

| blog, France, Greece, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, L&B World, migrants, Myanmar, Nepal, refugees, Somalia, sports, Syria, Turkey | December 30, 2015

© AFP - 2015


These were the 15 most-read stories in 2015 on our AFP Correspondent blog. We wish all our readers a happy New Year.

These were the 15 most-read stories in 2015 on our AFP Correspondent blog. We wish all our readers a happy New Year.

1. War in peace, by Aris Messinis

Children huddle under emergency blankets after arriving in Lesbos in October. (AFP/Aris Messinis)

(AFP Photo / Aris Messinis)

AFP's chief photographer in Greece Aris Messinis knows what a war looks like. He's covered conflicts in Syria and Libya. He has seen death and suffering. But covering the migrants arriving in their hundreds on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos has affected him more.

"You constantly realize that you're not in a warzone. That you're working in a place where there is peace...  the human pain is the same as in a war, but just knowing that you are not in a warzone makes it much more emotional. And much more painful."

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2. Fleeing through the eye of a needle, by Bulent Kilic

Syrians fleeing the war rush through broken down border fences to enter Turkish territory, near the Turkish border crossing at Akcakale in Sanliurfa province on June 14, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC)

(AFP Photo / Bulent Kilic)

"We have been on the Turkey-Syria border for a week now, within sight of Tal Abyad where Kurdish forces are battling Islamic State jihadists for control," writes AFP's Bulent Kilic. "On Sunday, June 14, thousands of people fleeing the fighting suddenly appeared from behind the hill and swarmed down towards the border fence. Everything happened in five minutes. It was like a Hollywood film."

"I have been photographing this refugee crisis for nearly four years now, but yesterday was different. Almost every woman had children with her. I have never seen anything like it."

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3. Lives cut short

The makeshift memorial at Le Carillon. (AFP/Loic Venance)

(AFP Photo / Loic Venance)

Their names were Bertrand, Chloe, Halima or Thierry. They were a student, a banker, a mechanic or a waiter. Most were in their 20s and 30s. All died in the Paris attacks of November 13 or in the days that followed from their injuries.

A small team of AFP journalists was put in place after the tragedy to try and collect at least a few personal details about each of the victims. The result is an interactive database, so that the death toll is not just a number, and so each victim has a face.

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4. From streets of fear in Mogadishu to "paradise in Paris", by Mohamed Abdiwahab

Somalis play football as the sun sets on August 11, 2015 at Lido Beach in Mogadishu (AFP Photo / Mohamed Abdiwahab)

(AFP / Mohamed Abdiwahab)

"Are there any happy moments in Somalia?" AFP photographer in Mogadishu Mohamed Abdiwahab asks himself. "I can't say there have been any ever since I started this job. But sometimes I feel happy when there's a calm moment and I can photograph people relaxing at the beach or playing football… Those are real moments of joy for me."

"But I know that the next day, or even that afternoon, the violence and the chaos will return. So I can never be 100 percent happy."

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5. 'Those disguised as Arabs', by Andrea Bernardi

Infiltrated members of the Israeli security forces detain a Palestinian stone thrower and aim their weapons at fellow protesters during clashes in Beit El, on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Ramallah, on October 7, 2015 (AFP / Abbas Momani)

(AFP Photo / Abbas Momani)

"It's fairly common to see Israeli agents infiltrate the crowds of Palestinian stone throwers during demonstrations", writes Jerusalem-based video reporter Andrea Bernardi. "I've witnessed this plenty of times in Jerusalem. The goal of these 'moustaarinine' -- literally 'those who disguise themselves as Arabs' -- is to stop the protesters. They usually take out their weapons without using them, or, more often, point them into the sky, as if they were about to shoot into the air."

"But today I for the first time filmed these undercover agents firing live bullets into a crowd of protesters".

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6. From one nightmare to another, by Christophe Archambault

(AFP / Christophe Archambault)

(AFP Photo / Christophe Archambault)

"We are here in the hope our pictures can put a human face on this crisis," writes the AFP photographer Christophe Archambault, who travelled to the Andaman Sea to find a boat carrying hundreds of migrants from the persecuted Rohingya minority, adrift off the Thai coast. "My first reaction is shock. Their faces are completely emaciated. You can see their ribcages, their pointed shoulder bones. We are witnessing a situation of absolute horror."

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7. Photography: telling art from fraud, by Roland de Courson


(KCNA Photo)

The above image was never distributed to AFP's clients. Issued by the North Korean agency KCNA in 2013, it purports to show military manoeuvres in the east of the country. But analysis of the missile fire and smoke, using specialist software, revealed a series of anomalies indicating it had been manipulated. It is, in all likelihood, a doctored image. This is an extreme case, but fraud in photography is far from limited to North Korea, Syria or extremist propaganda movements. On February 12, an unprecedented number of entrants were disqualified from the World Press Photo awards for tampering with their images - reviving an old debate about the fine line, in photojournalism, between artistry and fraud.

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8. The Fall, by Valeriano Di Domenico

FIFA President Sepp Blatter leaves after a press conference at the headquarters of the world's football governing body in Zurich on June 2, 2015 (AFP / Valeriano Di Domenico)

(AFP Photo / Valeriano Di Domenico)

"When AFP calls at five pm on Tuesday evening, to ask me to cover a last-minute press conference at FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich, I have little idea I will be getting a front-row seat to football history," writes the photographer Valeriano Di Domenico. "When Sepp Blatter announces his resignation, I can’t believe my ears. But suddenly I realise none of the shots I have taken so far illustrates the magnitude of what is taking place. THE picture, the one that symbolises the fall of the boss of world football, will be the one of him leaving the room."

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9. 'The lucky ones', by Serene Assir

Migrants check their mobile phones on a beach after reaching the Greek island of Kos on August 12, 2015 (AFP Photo / Angelos Tzortzinis)

(AFP Photo / Angelos Tzortzinis)

"It’s 4:00 am, stars fill the velvet night sky and the Aegean Sea is perfectly still", writes AFP reporter Serene Assir. "A few journalists gather at the beach in Greece’s resort island Kos, waiting in silence on an unlikely frontline of Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War II. Today, like every other day, scores of refugees and migrants fleeing war and misery will reach the shore on inflatable boats, dreaming of a better life in Europe."

“Greece? Turkey? Where am I?” pants a man in his forties as he clambers out of the dinghy, tearing off his bright orange life vest. “You’re in Greece,” I reply. Overcome with emotion, he kneels down on the sand to pray, grateful that he has made it to Europe alive."

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10. The crying man, by Sakis Mitrolidis

A July 3, 2015 photograph shows Greek pensioner Giorgos Chatzifotiadis crying outside a national bank branch in Thessaloniki (AFP PHOTO /SAKIS MITROLIDIS)

(AFP Photo / Sakis Mitrolidis)

"Suddenly a man emerged from the bank yelling and gesturing, holding in his hand a savings book and his ID card," writes the AFP photographer Sakis Mitrolidis, who took the viral picture of a Greek pensioner weeping on the street. "Immediately I picked up my camera and started shooting. The poor man. After seconds he collapsed to the ground."

"Some people have suggested it is THE defining picture of the Greek crisis. I don’t see it that way. I think it tells part of the story."

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11. Whipped by the sharia police, by Nurdin Hasan

An Acehnese woman convicted for 'immoral acts' reacts after being lashed by a hooded local government officer during a public caning at a square in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, on June 12, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN)

(AFP Photo / Chaideer Mayhuddin)

"It's not clear if the caning itself was responsible for the young woman collapsing, or the trauma of being punished so publicly before an enormous crowd," writes Nurdin Hasan, an AFP correspondent in Aceh, the only province in Indonesia allowed to implement Islamic sharia law, where public canings for "immoral acts" have been on the rise.

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12. I'm going to be buried alive, by Roberto Schmidt & Ammu Kannampilly

A cloud of snow and debris triggered by an earthquake flies towards Everest Base Camp on April 25, 2015 (AFP / Roberto Schmidt)

(AFP Photo /Roberto Schmidt)

Roberto Schmidt, AFP’s South Asia photo chief, and Kathmandu bureau chief Ammu Kannampilly had just reached Everest base camp on assignment on April 25 when an avalanche - triggered by the earthquake that has killed more than 5,000 in Nepal - thundered down the mountain leaving at least 18 people dead. This is the story of their near-fatal experience.

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13. Six months in India: my best-of video, by Agnes Bun

An Indian woman's face is smeared with colored powder during celebrations of the Holi festival in the Sivasagar district of northeastern Assam state on March 6, 2015 (AFP PHOTO)

(AFP Photo)

"In February 2015 I moved to New Delhi to become AFP’s South Asia video coordinator", writes journalist Agnès Bun. "While I had travelled to the region before and did my homework after I got the job, I soon realized that I would have to expect the unexpected. All these moments, all these faces, do not always find their place in a news agency’s video output. That is why I wanted to gather them in a personal video, in a tribute to a unique and fascinating country that I have barely started to explore and which reminds me every minute that there are still so many brave, resigned or mischievious smiles left to be captured and shared."

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14. 'Little Schoolboy' at Charlie Hebdo, by Karim Talbi

An editorial meeting at Charlie Hebdo in 2001 (AFP / François Guillot)

(AFP Photo / Francois Guillot)

"Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists were not my friends. They were my first family in journalism, the one you can never fall out with," AFP's Karim Talbi, who started his career at satirical weekly, writes in tribute to his friends, murdered by Islamic extremists. "I would never be where I am today without the good old Wolinski, Cabu, Charb and Tignous."

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15. Invited to a porn shoot: 'I'll wait outside', by Alastair Himmer

Japanese porn actor Ken Shimizu, known as Shimiken (AFP / Yoshikazu Tsuno)

(AFP / Yoshikazu Tsuno)

"When Japanese porn king 'Shimiken' tweeted that there were more Bengali tigers than male porn actors in Japan, AFP Tokyo felt obliged, nay duty-bound, to launch a forensic investigation into this cause célèbre," writes Alastair Himmer. "But this would be no ordinary assignment. Not by a long chalk."

Continue reading...

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Gunmen ‘attack offices of Turkish newspaper Hurriyet daily’

| blog, L&B World, Turkey, World | December 12, 2015

Gunmen have carried out an attack on the building of Turkish newspaper Hurriyet daily, according to reports.

The attack was reportedly carried out from a vehicle passing by the headquarters of Hurriyet on the Eskisehir road in Ankara, Cumhuriyet reported.

Five to six shots were heard, and some of the windows of the building were broken in the attack.

Hurriyet’s Editor-in-Chief, Sedat Ergin, said however that though the windows were broken it was not clear what broke them, and that police are investigating.

Hurryet has been attacked in the past. In early September, an angry crowd over more than 100 people lead by the former Justice and Development Party deputy attacked the headquarters.

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Turkey and Russia: still uneasy after all these years

| blog, L&B World, Russia, Turkey | December 3, 2015

Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Russia's Vladimir Putin (R) in July, 2012. (AFP/Pool/Sergei Karpukhin)

(AFP/Pool/Sergei Karpukhin)

The current spat between Moscow and Ankara over the shooting down of a Russian plane is just the latest manifestation of the uneasy relationship between two former empires, which have spent much of the last half millenium at war, writes AFP's Istanbul deputy bureau chief Stuart Williams.

By Stuart Williams

Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Russia's Vladimir Putin (R) in July, 2012. (AFP/Pool/Sergei Karpukhin)

Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Russia's Vladimir Putin (R) in July, 2012. (AFP/Pool/Sergei Karpukhin)

Istanbul, December 3, 2015 -- At first glance, the black railings around the Transfiguration Cathedral in a quiet square in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg look like nothing extraordinary. But closer inspection reveals something else. The fence posts are not all standard metal bars but the largest are 19th century cannons, standing vertically and linked by chains.

These cannons were captured by the Russian imperial army from Ottoman Turkish forces in the Russo-Turkish War in 1828-1829 and later put to good use as trophies around the church and a symbol of Russian military might against Turkey. To this day, in the middle of this nordic city which spends half its year covered in a veil of snow, traces of the Ottoman calligraphic script can still be seen on the cannon.

A long and tangled history

It’s a stark reminder that the Ottoman and Russian Empires spent much of the last half millenium at war. The Russo-Turkish wars that started in the late sixteenth century and the Crimean War from 1853-1856 are etched into the modern public consciousness. Not to mention the so-called “Tatar-yoke” of mediaeval times when ancient Rus was ruled by Mongol-backed Turkic Tatars. The current flaring of tensions between Russia and Turkey following the shooting down of a Russian warplane on the Syrian border is, historically, no flash in the the pan but the latest dramatic confrontation between two powers who have constantly clashed for regional hegemony.

But for most of the over five years I spent as a correspondent in Moscow from 2008-2014 and in Istanbul since 2014, cooperation was the watchword in relations between Russia and Turkey. Disputes were set aside as officials rushed in and out to sign deals on trade and energy.

Two strongmen

The warming of ties was based on a strong personal relationship between the countries’ two strongmen, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leaders who have striking similarities. Now both in their early sixties, they are steering post-imperial societies into what supporters claim is a new dawn of stability and critics believe is a step back to the authoritarianism of the past. They have held both the posts of premier and head of state in order to cling on to power and make displays of political virility a key part of their image. Both also faced down unprecedented protests that challenged their rule -- Erdogan in 2013 and Putin in 2011-2012.

In one memorable episode in October 2009, Erdogan took part in a blokely conference call with Putin and his top buddy, ex Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, where the three discussed football and energy pipelines. It seemed Erdogan, then premier, had become part of Putin’s macho boys club.

Italy's Silvio Berlusconi (L), Russia's Vladimir Putin (C) and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) in northern Turkey, November, 2005. (AFP/Kerim Okten)

Italy's Silvio Berlusconi (L), Russia's Vladimir Putin (C) and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) in northern Turkey, November, 2005. (AFP/Kerim Okten)

The relationship reached its peak in December 2014 when Putin was invited to Erdogan’s glitzy new presidential palace as one of the very first visitors. We expected the ensuing press conference to produce the usual boilerplate official message of expanding bilateral ties while the more interesting behind-the-scenes dealing was kept secret. Instead, we scrambled as Putin emerged and stunningly announced that Russia was ditching a project for a major new energy pipeline with several EU companies and instead would work with Turkey on a new pipeline inevitably baptized Turk Stream.

What about the Syrian civil war where Ankara and Moscow have starkly different visions of the future of the country? Or Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, with its Tatar minority looking to Ankara for support in the face of their rough treatment by the new local authorities on the peninsula? The disputes, as analysts said, had been successfully “compartmentalised” as Ankara and Moscow focused on a new era of cooperation.

But when the unravelling came it was sudden and definitive.

A protester sets fire to a Putin poster during a demonstration against Russia in Istanbul, November, 2015. (AFP/Cagdas Erdogan)

A protester sets fire to a Putin poster during a demonstration against Russia in Istanbul, November, 2015. (AFP/Cagdas Erdogan)

Ever since Russia began its air campaign in Syria in September, there had been fears of a mid-skies incident with a NATO member. But not even the greatest Cassandras among analysts and media seriously believed it would happen. At the end of October, there was excitement when Turkey announced it had shot down an aircraft that violated its airspace. But it turned out that the object was simply a drone (albeit Russian-made) that pictures showed was little bigger than a hobby enthusiast’s model aircraft. The story was rapidly forgotten.

The unthinkable happens

On the morning of November 24, it rapidly became clear that the worst had happened as the various elements of the story were confirmed one by one.

Aircraft shot down by Turkish forces. A manned war plane. Moscow confirms one of its planes. Turkey says there were 10 violations within a five minute period. Both pilots ejected, one killed (the circumstances remain unclear) and the other rescued. Russia, so often accused of being the aggressor, could paint itself as the victim and the Kremlin reaction was incandescent.

(AFP Graphics)

(AFP Graphics)

Almost 4.5 million Russians visited Turkey in 2014. For most of them, the Syrian war and niceties of Ankara-Moscow diplomatic relations were remote concerns. Charter flights would bring in thousands of Russians daily to the Turkish Mediterranean resorts, not just from Moscow and Saint Petersburg, but direct from cities in the Urals and Siberia to find some respite from the Russian weather.

They never dreamed of becoming bucket-and-spade weapons in a diplomatic conflict. But this was what they became when Russia’s foreign ministry swiftly warned its citizens not to travel to Turkey, prompting Russian tour agencies to stop selling tours and at a stroke denying the Turkish tourism industry its key market.

To hammer the final nail, Moscow announced it was lifting the visa-free regime for Turks whose announcement in 2010 and taking effect the following year had been seen as a direct product of the strong relationship between Erdogan and Putin.

Russian honour guards carry the coffin with the body of one of the pilots from the shot-down plane. (AFP/Russian defence ministry/Vadim Savitsky)

Russian honour guards carry the coffin with the body of one of the pilots from the shot-down plane. (AFP/Russian defence ministry/Vadim Savitsky)

As the Kremlin machine geared into action, sanctions were agreed against Turkey while the future of key infrastructure projects, naturally including Turk Stream, were put at risk. The single incident above the Syrian border had within days affected swathes of people -- families from Siberia planning an autumn escape to Turkey, Turks in the south whose livelihoods depend on Russian tourism, Turkish business people with significant investments in Russia, Russians living in Turkey who suddenly began to feel deeply insecure. One Turkish man posted a viral picture on the Internet of him flying from Moscow to Antalya as the sole passenger on the plane. The effects of geopolitics on seemingly unconnected aspects of life can be ruthless and instantaneous.

Putin at Erdogan's new presidential palace outside Ankara, December, 2014. (AFP/Adem Altan)

Putin at Erdogan's new presidential palace outside Ankara, December, 2014. (AFP/Adem Altan)

One of my favourite cities in Turkey is the northeastern city of Kars. Made quite famous through a novel by Turkey’s Nobel prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk, it’s a strangely alluring place. Partly because it reminds me of Russia. The streets are set out in an organised grid pattern. They are lined with beautiful mansions reminiscent of the best architecture of Moscow.

The Turkish city of Kars. April, 2009. (AFP/Mustafa Ozer)

The Turkish city of Kars. April, 2009. (AFP/Mustafa Ozer)

This is because Kars was for four decades part of the Russian Empire, leaving an imprint that remains to this day and a permanent symbol of the struggle between Russia and Turkey for domination of the Black Sea and Caucasus region. The city was seized by Russia in the 1877-78 war but then fully won back by Turkey in the early 1920s in the wake of the Russian Revolution and Russia’s defeat in World War One.

Even in the years following World War II, Stalin’s regime made noises about the need for the return of Kars to the USSR, grumblings that only ended with the security guarantees Turkey received when it was fully aligned with the Western bloc in the Cold War and then became a NATO member in 1952.

For all the historical baggage, it would have seemed inconceivable to me over the last seven years that Turkey and Russia could have ended in such a dire position in 2015. There probably won’t be any (at least direct) war between Moscow and Ankara and no conflict that lasts 400 years. But there will be damage to a key geopolitical relationship which will be as severe as it is sudden.

Stuart Williams is AFP deputy bureau chief in Istanbul. Follow him on Twitter.

Putin and Erdogan in happier times, September, 2013. (AFP/Eric Feferberg)

Putin and Erdogan in happier times, September, 2013. (AFP/Eric Feferberg)

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Greece and Turkey have been throwing all kinds of shade at one another on Twitter

| blog, Greece, L&B World, Turkey, World | December 1, 2015

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (L) with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (Picture: Murat Kaynak/Anadolu Agency/Getty)
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (L) with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (Picture: Murat Kaynak/Anadolu Agency/Getty)

Greece and Turkey had major beef on Twitter.

The social media spat was over Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane due to an error by an aide in Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ office, a Greek official said on Monday.

It began in the middle of a summit between Turkey and the European Union on Sunday, when a message appeared on Tsipras’ Twitter account saying: ‘To Prime Minister Davutoglu: Fortunately our pilots are not as mercurial as yours against the Russians.’

A… Read the full story

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Shipment of 800 shotguns headed to Europe seized by police

| Belgium, blog, L&B World, Paris attacks, Turkey, Weird | November 27, 2015

A shipment containing around 800 shotguns has been seized en route to Europe from Turkey by police conducting checks following the Paris attacks.

Italian police discovered 781 Winchester rifles packed tightly into boxes on board a lorry that arrived via ferry at the port city of Trieste.

In footage published by RT, officers from the Guardia di Finanza unpack the pump-action guns from branded cardboard boxes.

The guns, according to the manufacturer’s website, can deliver ‘three shots in half a second’.

MORE: ‘Multiple victims’ following shooting at family planning centre in Colorado Springs

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‘Turkey gave us no warning’, says surviving pilot of downed Russian jet

| blog, L&B World, Russia, Syria, Turkey, World | November 25, 2015

(Picture: EPA)
Turkey claimed they warned the Russian pilots to return to Syrian airspace (Picture: EPA)

The surviving pilot of a Russian plane brought down by Turkey over the Syrian border has said that no warning was given before they were shot at.

Vladimir Putin said earlier today that Captain Konstantin Murakhtin, who was initially reported to have been killed along with his fellow pilot, was Read the full story

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