ANKARA, Turkey — NATO’s secretary-general apologized to Turkey on Friday over military exercises in Norway during which Turkey’s founding leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were reportedly depicted as “enemies.”
Erdogan said Turkey withdrew 40 of its soldiers participating in the drills at NATO’s Joint Warfare Centre in Stavanger, Norway, in protest of the incident and slammed the alliance.
He said Turkey’s top general Hulusi Akar and EU Affairs Minister Omer Celik — who were on their way to a NATO conference in Halifax, Canada — had informed him of the incident.
“They said ‘this has happened… and we are going to take out our 40 soldiers’. And I said ‘absolutely, don’t hesitate, take them out right now'” Erdogan said.
“There can be no such unity, no such alliance,” he said in an address to his ruling party’s provincial leaders, speaking in front of giant pictures of himself and Ataturk, who founded modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1923.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg issued a statement saying: “I apologize for the offense caused.”
He said the incident was the result of an “individual’s actions” and didn’t reflect the views of the alliance.
The individual, described as a civilian contractor seconded by Norway and not a NATO employee, was removed from the exercise and an investigation was underway, Stoltenberg said.
“It will be for the Norwegian authorities to decide on any disciplinary action,” Stoltenberg added. “Turkey is a valued NATO ally, which makes important contributions to allied security.”
Erdogan said Ataturk’s picture and his own name were featured on an “enemy chart” during the drills.
The Joint Warfare Centre is a multi-national NATO unit based in Stavanger, 300 kilometers (186 miles) southwest of Oslo. It is currently led by Maj. Gen. Andrzej Reudowicz of Poland. According to its website, it has a staff of 250 made up of civilians from 11 NATO member states, including Turkey.
In March, the Norwegian government caused fury in Turkey by granting political asylum to five Turkish officers based in Norway who had refused to return home after the failed July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. The five officers said that they feared being arrested and tortured in Turkey.
The Trident Javelin exercise in Stavanger is described on a NATO website as a “computer assisted exercise without troops on the ground”, aimed at improving command structures for big operations.
The decision by Ankara, a NATO member since 1952, to buy the S-400 air defense system from Russia caused concern among its Western allies, but Turkey remains an important and active member of the alliance.