By Can Sezer
ISTANBUL (Reuters) -Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday that he was pressing Russia to extend a Black Sea grain deal by at least three months and announced a visit by President Vladimir Putin in August.
He was speaking at a joint news conference with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy after the two parties met to discuss the fate of an arrangement, brokered last year by Turkey and the United Nations, to allow for the safe export of grain from Ukrainian ports via the Black Sea despite the war.
Zelenskiy’s visit followed stops in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, part of a tour of some NATO capitals aimed at encouraging them to take concrete steps at a summit next week towards granting Kyiv membership of the alliance, which Erdogan said Ukraine deserved.
Erdogan said work was under way on extending the Black Sea grain deal beyond its expiration date of July 17 and for longer periods beyond that. The deal would be one of the most important issues on the agenda for his meeting with Putin in Turkey next month, he said.
“Our hope is that it will be extended at least once every three months, not every two months. We will make an effort in this regard and try to increase the duration of it to two years,” he said at the news conference with Zelenskiy.
Both men said they had also discussed another key question for Erdogan’s talks with Putin — the question of prisoner exchanges, which Zelenskiy said had been the first thing on their agenda. “I hope we will get a result from this soon,” Erdogan said.
Zelenskiy said he would wait for a result to comment but made clear the discussion had gone into specifics on returning all captives including children deported to Russia and other groups.
“We are working on the return of our captives, political prisoners, Crimean Tatars,” he said, referring to members of Ukraine’s Muslim community in the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014. “Our partners have all the lists. We are really working on this.”
Erdogan said the issue could also come up in his contacts with the Russian leader before his visit. “If we make some phone calls before that, we will discuss it on the call as well,” he said.
The Kremlin said it would be watching the talks closely, saying Putin has highly appreciated the mediation of Erdogan in attempting to resolve the conflict in Ukraine.
“As for forthcoming contacts between Putin and Erdogan, we do not rule them out in the foreseeable future,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters ahead of the Istanbul talks with Zelenskiy, which began on Friday.
Russia, angry about aspects of the grain deal’s implementation, has threatened not to allow its further extension beyond July 17.
Turkey, a NATO member, has managed to retain cordial relations with both Russia and Ukraine over the past 16 months of the war and last year it helped to broker prisoner exchanges.
Turkey has not joined its Western allies in imposing economic sanctions on Russia, but has also supplied arms to Ukraine and called for its sovereignty to be respected.
(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun, Oleksandr Kozhukhar and Orhan Coskun, Writing by Elaine Monaghan and Huseyin Hayatsever, Editing by Jonathan Spicer, Gareth Jones and Diane Craft)
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