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Turkish PM: Israeli Raid A 'Bloody Massacre'

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ANKARA, Turkey — Israel's deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship has ignited unprecedented anger in Turkey and driven the Jewish state's relations with its most important Muslim ally to their lowest point in six decades.

There are signs, however, that the countries' long-term strategic alliance and military ties will endure.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan furiously told parliament Tuesday that the "bloody massacre" of at least four Turkish activists among nine passengers slain by Israeli naval commandos was a turning point in the long-standing alliance.

"Nothing will be the same again," Erdogan said, gesturing angrily, his voice shaking at times.

Thousands of Turks staged protests across the country and pockets of demonstrators shouted "down with Israel!" near the Israeli ambassador's residence – an unusual sight in one of the capital's richest districts.

The pro-Islamic newspaper Yeni Safak described the Israeli troops as "The children of Hitler" in a banner headline.

But other officials were delivering messages of restraint and Turkey said it was not canceling plans to accept $183 million (euro150.56 million) worth of Israeli drone planes this summer.

"We will find a solution within law and diplomacy," Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Monday. "No one should expect us to declare war on Israel over this."

Turkey's eight-year-old Islamic-rooted government has publicly and frequently expressed outrage over Israel's 2008-2009 war in Gaza and continuing blockade of the strip. But Turkey's deeply secular military remains heavily dependent on high-tech Israeli arms in its battle against Kurdish separatist guerrillas based along Turkey's mountainous southeastern border with Iraq.

Israel's right-leaning government said that the countries' defense ministers had agreed hours after the raid that the incident wouldn't affect Israeli weapons sales to Turkey.

The massive Heron drones to be delivered this summer can fly at least 20 hours nonstop and first saw action against Hamas militants in the Gaza war. Turkey hopes they can gather crucial intelligence on Kurdish rebels and allow pinpoint strikes at a time of escalating insurgent attacks. Israel also recently completed a more than $1 billion upgrade of Turkey's aging tank fleet and U.S.-made F-4 warplanes. Turkey has opened its airspace to Israeli pilots for training purposes.

"There are still common interests, common needs," said Ofra Bengio, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center. "For the time being, we're in the middle of a crisis...but governments change."

Erdogan met with the military's second-ranking general, the defense minister and national intelligence chief minutes before his speech to parliament. Although Turkey has scrapped three joint army and navy exercises and pulled its ambassador to Israel, Erdogan's heated address shied away from proclaiming a broader change in policy.

"From now on, it is no longer possible to turn a blind eye on the lawless behavior of the current Israeli government," he said.

Turkey called for emergency meetings of the United Nations Security Council and NATO to condemn the killings. But its representative to NATO did not demand that the alliance take collective action against Israel, according to a diplomat who attended the talks. The official asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

"The relations are based on mutual trust and I don't think they are permanently damaged," said Mahfi Egilmez, an analyst with NTV television. "The relations can improve when there is a new government in Israel or when the Gaza conflict is solved."

Turkey, which welcomed Jews fleeing Nazi persecution during the World War II, was among the first Muslim countries to recognize Israel in 1948. The two countries grew closer after signing military cooperation agreements in 1996.

Bilateral trade stands around $2.6 billion – roughly one percent of Turkey's overall trade – and Israeli have given crucial support in recent years to Turkey's efforts to prevent the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during World War I from being labeled a genocide.

Turkey's Islamic-rooted administration has been increasingly assertive diplomatically in the Middle East in recent years and has tried to mediate Israeli talks with Syria. But relations with Israel have been deteriorating steadily since Israel's Gaza war.

Erdogan walked off the stage at the World Economic Forum last year after berating Israel's President Shimon Peres over the Gaza war.

On Tuesday, Erdogan spoke to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about the clash.

Ban plans a whole day of meetings on Wednesday in New York to discuss a U.N. investigation with Turkish, Arab and Israeli officials as well as with members of the Security Council.

In January, Turkish Ambassador Oguz Celikkol was forced to sit on a low sofa and was not greeted with a handshake during a meeting in Israel with Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who later apologized.

Turkey has since begun backing Iran's attempts to quash new U.N. sanctions over its nuclear program, another irritant in relations with the U.S. and Israel.

The Gaza aid flotilla was organized by an Istanbul-based Islamic charity under the unofficial auspices of the Turkish government. Turkey's Foreign Ministry said four Turkish citizens were confirmed slain by the Israeli commandos and another five were also believed to be Turks, although Israeli authorities were still trying to confirm their nationalities.

Turkey sent planes to pick up the wounded after refusing an Israeli offer to bring them home.

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Associated Press writers Ceren Kumova in Ankara, Karoun Demirjian in Jerusalem and Desmond Butler in Washington contributed to this report.