New Zealand, Australia rebuke Turkey's Erdogan for 'reckless' comments on Christchurch terror attack

Australian PM Scott Morrison (left) condemned the comments made by Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan presenting the attack as part of an assault on Turkey and Islam.
Australian PM Scott Morrison (left) condemned the comments made by Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan presenting the attack as part of an assault on Turkey and Islam.PHOTOS: DPA, REUTERS

SYDNEY (REUTERS, AFP) - New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Wednesday (March 20) Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters will travel to Turkey to “confront” comments made by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on the killing of at least 50 people at mosques in Christchurch.

Australian Brenton Tarrant, 28, a suspected white supremacist, was charged with murder on Saturday after a lone gunman opened fire at the two mosques during Friday prayers.

Erdogan – who is seeking to drum up support for his Islamist-rooted AK Party in March 31 local elections – said Turkey would make the suspected attacker pay if New Zealand did not.

The comments came at a campaign rally that included video footage of the shootings which the alleged gunman had broadcast on Facebook.

Ardern said Peters, who is also New Zealand's foreign minister, would seek urgent clarification.

“Our deputy prime minister will be confronting those comments in Turkey,” Ardern told reporters in Christchurch. “He is going there to set the record straight, face-to-face.”

Peters had earlier condemned the airing of footage of the shooting, which he said could endanger New Zealander’s aboard.

Despite Peters’ intervention, an extract from Tarrant’s alleged manifesto was flashed up on a screen at Erdogan’s rally again on Tuesday, along with footage of the gunman entering one of the mosques and shooting as he approached the door.

Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he summoned Turkey’s ambassador for a meeting, during which he demanded Erdogan’s "reckless" and "highly offensive" comments on the Christchurch massacre be removed from Turkey’s state broadcaster. Morrison warned he would consider "all options" in reviewing ties. 

Mr Erdogan, while campaigning for local elections, had presented the attack as part of an assault on Turkey and Islam and warned that anti-Muslim Australians would suffer the same fate as soldiers at Gallipoli, a blood-drenched World War I battle.

More than 8,000 Australians died fighting Turkish forces at Gallipoli, which has a prominent place in Australia’s collective memory. 

“Remarks have been made by the Turkish President Erdogan that I consider highly offensive to Australians, and highly reckless in this very sensitive environment,” Mr Morrison said after summoning the Turkish ambassador and dismissing the “excuses” offered. 

“I am expecting, and I have asked, for these comments to be clarified, to be withdrawn,” said Mr Morrison, who also faces an election challenge in the coming weeks.

“I’ve asked for these comments, particularly their reporting of the misrepresented position of Australia on Turkish television, the state-sponsored broadcaster, to be taken down and I expect that to occur.”

He described claims about Australia and New Zealand’s response to the white supremacist attack as “vile”. He also added that Australians travelling to Turkey should exercise common sense and cautioned that travel advice for Turkey was under review.

“I will wait to see what the response is from the Turkish government before taking further action, but I can tell you that all options are on the table,” he said.

In fiery remarks, Mr Morrison accused Mr Erdogan of betraying the promise of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – the father of the modern state and a revered figure in Turkey – to forge peace between the two countries. 

A memorial at the battlefield carries Ataturk’s words: “There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets... after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

“Ataturk sought to transform his country into a modern nation and, an embracing nation, and I think these comments are at odds with that spirit,” Mr Morrison said. 

‘TOTALLY UNFAIR’

Mr Erdogan had already been sharply rebuked by New Zealand for his comments and for using gruesome video shot by the Christchurch mosque gunman as an election campaign prop. 

New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister Peters protested on Monday that such politicisation of the massacre “imperils the future and safety of the New Zealand people and our people abroad, and it’s totally unfair”. 

Mr Peters announced on Tuesday that he would be travelling to Turkey this week at Istanbul’s request to attend a special meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. 

Three Turkish nationals were wounded in the rampage that killed 50 worshippers at two mosques in the southern New Zealand city of Christchurch last Friday. 

The accused gunman, a self-avowed white supremacist from Australia, live streamed much of the attack and spread a manifesto on social media claiming it was a strike against Muslim “invaders”.

The manifesto references Turkey and the minarets of Istanbul’s famed Hagia Sophia, now a museum, that was once a church before becoming a mosque during the Ottoman empire. 

“This is not an isolated event, it is something more organised,” he said during a campaign event on Monday in Canakkale in western Turkey.

“They are testing us with the message they are sending us from New Zealand, 16,500km from here.”

Mr Erdogan did not project the video at the Monday event. Mr Peters said he had complained directly to visiting Turkish Vice-President Fuat Oktay and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.