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Turkey expressed its dismay on Monday with the way US Secretary of State John Kerry asked Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to delay a visit to the Gaza Strip planned for next month, saying that an experienced diplomat would not do so.
Kerry's statement "is not correct diplomatically", Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told reporters. "It is up to our government to decide where our prime minister or a Turkish official will go and when."
The top US diplomat said Sunday a possible trip by Erdogan to Gaza would be "distraction" to US efforts to revive the moribund Middle East peace process.
"We have expressed to the prime minister that it would be better delayed," Kerry told reporters in Istanbul, a day after attending the core group meeting of the Friends of Syria, urging Erdogan to wait for the "right circumstances".
"It was our feeling in a constructive way that we thought that the timing of it is really critical with respect to the peace process that we're trying to get off the ground," emphasised Kerry.
He added Washington would like "as little outside distraction as possible" as it tries to breathe life back into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
His comments highlight Washington's efforts aimed at breaking the ice in its two allies' relations at a time of growing war at their doorsteps in Syria.
Erdogan announced last week that he was planning to visit the impoverished Palestinian territory at the end of next month after a key trip to Washington on May 16.
The Turkish leader said his visit would be aimed at pushing for the lifting of Israel's embargo on the Gaza Strip but Washington fears such a trip could hurt a fresh US-brokered rapprochement between the former allies after a three-year rift.
"We are not in a situation to receive permission, or to accept in advance a go-ahead from anybody," Arinc said. "The world and Mr. Kerry know that Turkey is a country which can do whatever it wants to and when."
He stood firm on Erdogan's plans to visit Gaza but said no timetable was set yet for such a trip.
"It could be May, or any other date. Our goal and thought is that the prime minister will make the visit," said the official.
Kerry's comments before the cameras, Arinc said, represented an effort not to cause any misunderstanding.
"But an experienced foreign minister would not act that way," he said. "He could have presented his views to our foreign minister or to the prime minister as advice."
Besides Washington, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's West Bank-based nationalist Fatah movement, a long-time rival to Hamas, has said Erdogan's plans to visit Gaza would foster intra-Palestinian divisions.
Abbas was due to meet Erdogan in Ankara later Monday.
Kerry's talks with Erdogan focused mainly on restoring predominantly Muslim Turkey's once-close ties with Israel, which hit an all-time low after Israeli marines raided a Gaza-bound flotilla in May 2010, killing nine Turks.
After securing an A-word from Israel at the urging of Washington, Turkey is negotiating with the Jewish state over compensation for the victims' families who demand that Israel lift the Gaza blockade.