REUTERS - Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused Russia on Wednesday of attempted "ethnic cleansing" in northern Syria, saying Moscow was trying to drive out the local Turkmen and Sunni Muslim populations to protect its military interests in the region.
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Davutoglu's comments could further harm strained relations between Moscow and Ankara, already at their worst in recent memory after Turkish forces downed a Russian warplane near the Turkish-Syrian border late last month.
"Russia is trying to make ethnic cleansing in northern Latakia to force (out) all Turkmen and Sunni population who do not have good relations with the regime," Davutoglu told foreign journalists in Istanbul.
"They want to expel them, they want to ethnically cleanse this area so that the regime (of Syrian President Bashar Assad) and Russian bases in Latakia and Tartus are protected," he said, speaking English.
The Turkmens are ethnic kin of the Turks and Ankara has been particularly angered by what it says is Russian targeting of them in Syria.
Davutoglu said Russian bombing around Azaz, which is also in northwest Syria, was designed to cut supply lines to Syrian groups opposed to Assad, Moscow's ally, and ultimately to benefit ISIS militants.
Both Moscow and Ankara have repeatedly accused the other of helping ISIS. Both deny the charge.
Turkey, a member of the NATO alliance and of the U.S.-led coalition that is bombing ISIS in Syria, has long called for the ousting of Assad.
Russia began intervening directly in Syria's civil war at the end of September with air strikes in support of Assad.
The intervention has had unintended consequences, notably when Turkey shot down the jet, saying it had strayed into Turkish airspace, an allegation Russia denies.
Davutoglu said on Wednesday Turkey was ready to work with Russia to prevent similar incidents after the downing of the jet.